Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Review: "Julie and Julia"

Do yourself a favor: Before going to see "Julie & Julia," treat yourself to a wonderful meal.

This new film by writer/director Nora Ephron is a visceral and epicurean delight, and should not be indulged with a stomach full of chips and queso (as I did). You'll walk out of this movie hungry for life, and for good food.

"Julie & Julia" is the story of Julie Powell, a self-described "government drone by day, renegade foodie by night," who takes it upon herself to cook all 524 recipes in Julia Child's watershed book, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," in one year. She blogs about her culinary adventures and occasional disasters, which becomes a Web sensation, leading to newspaper articles, a book deal, and eventually this movie.

This story would be engaging enough on its own, but Ephron ("Sleepless in Seattle") had the stroke of genius to unspool the stories of the two women side-by-side. Julia, played by Meryl Streep in yet another Oscar-worthy performance, struggles for more than a decade to finish her book as Julie (Amy Adams) undertakes to master its daunting recipes in a cramped apartment kitchen in modern-day Queens.

They are not similar people -- Julia was fearless and adventurous, while Julie by her own admission is an underachiever who never finishes what she starts. Yet they both had a certain amount of mulishness when it comes to being told they can't do something, and had sweet, slightly put-upon husbands (Stanley Tucci and Chris Messina) firmly in their corner.

Julia and her husband Paul are living in Paris in 1949. He's a career diplomat, and she's a housewife bursting with energy. Frustrated by the usual social outlets for women like hat-making, she responds to Paul's query of what she most likes to do with the obvious answer: Eat!

She enrolls in a cooking class, but finds it too basic, and insists on enrolling in the class for professional chefs. She quickly becomes a star, and meets two French women, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle (Linda Emond and Helen Carey). Together they set about to write a French cookbook for American housewives.

Flash to 2002, where Julie works for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, overseeing the rebuilding of the aftermath of 9/11. Essentially, her job entails sitting in a cubicle all day while an endless stream of strangers call to shout at her.

Her turning point comes when a journalist friend talks Julie into participating in a magazine cover story that turns out to be an exploration of people around age 30 who have lost her way. Embarrassed at being labeled a loser, Julie becomes determined to do something that will stretch her skills as a cook, and a writer.

(I was delighted to find that Powell's entire blog, "The Julie/Julia Project," can still be viewed here.)

Their twin journeys mount in difficulty, but so does their resolve. Paul is transferred several times to different parts of Europe, and one of Julia's partners fails to pull her weight. Meanwhile in 2002-03, Julie fends off an observation from her mother that she is the only one reading the blog, which turns out to be gloriously untrue.

Streep nails the Julia Child persona, not only providing a spot-on imitation of her signature high-pitched warbling speech, but also providing a portrait of the real, vibrant woman behind the apron. In one scene, she pulls two piping-hot manicotti out of a pot and says something we never thought Julia Child would say, and yet in that moment we believe she could have.

Sweet, smart, funny and heart-warming, "Julie & Julia" is a cinematic feast, and one of the year's best films.

4 stars

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