Julia Child -- her name alone conjures up images of feather-light souffles, delicate pastries, and steaming pots of Beef Bourguignon. She was a culinary queen before such a grand gourmet status was cool. In a life that spanned a stint in WWII with the US Intelligence Service and a career as TV's top chef, she remains the epitome of grace and gumption in the kitchen. So any movie involving her rise to prominence should be chock full of drama, excitement, and fun -- and for the most part, Julie & Julia is. It's the first part of that title, however, which detracts from our ultimate enjoyment of all things foodie.
Feeling unloved and unappreciated, Julie Powell (Amy Adams) decides that she will recreate every recipe in Julia Child's famous Mastering the Art of French Cooking. 524 dishes. 365 days. Blogging about her progress, she soon has a loyal fan base following her every culinary triumph/tragedy. Also feeling unappreciated, if definitely not unloved, is the Julia Child (Meryl Streep) of the late '40s. In Paris with husband Paul (Stanley Tucci), she is bored with the typical housewife routine. Inspired by the amazing cuisine around her, she signs up for cooking lessons at the famous Le Cordon Bleu. Upon graduation, she connects with local ladies Simone Beck (Linda Emond) and Louisette Bertholle (Helen Carey). Together, they spend the next decade writing and rewriting a collection of guidelines and techniques that will, five decades later, inspire Ms. Powell to find herself, food-wise. Article continues below
Julie & Julia is a film that could have been much, much better. Of course, it would then have to be named simply Julia. The story of how Ms. Child became America's goddess of good food remains virtually unexplored here, the better to foster writer/director Nora Ephron's desire to link the culinary icon to contemporary career gal Julie Powell. The premise does have some possibilities, though the comparison between these two real life individuals is fraught with obvious discrepancies. By recreating every recipe in the icon's classic tome, Ms. Powell is supposed to be experiencing the same gastronomical magic that Ms. Child discovered upon arriving in France. But the differences between the two storylines couldn't be more startling. For Julia, food was part of a life rich in adventure, passion, and heart. For Julie, it's an excuse to be even more shrewish and self-absorbed.
With its many twists and turns, tales of celebration, and unfathomable heartache, Julia Child's life would make a stellar biopic on its own, and every time Streep is onscreen, working her matronly magic toward what will definitely be another Oscar nomination, we are with Ephron. We love the false cool of France during that era and sense the excitement our effervescent heroine feels at every bite she takes, with every challenge she quickly masters and manipulates.
As for Julie Powell, however, there's nothing really to care about. She hates her job (and who wouldn't -- she spends her days being yelled at by angry victims of the 9/11 attacks), hates where she lives, and hates her husband for being so supportive and understanding. If learning how to bone a duck or creating a complex aspic is supposed to provide comfort, or a personal epiphany, it's hard to see how this will happen -- even with Amy Adams' genial if generic work in the role.
Julia Child's story here is the stuff of mythology. Julie Powell's tale barely warrants a bookend. Combining the two must have seemed like a necessary narrative device, finding a way for contemporary audiences to appreciate a world built out of butter, foie gras, and delectable crusty breads -- and particularly because Powell's blog is the source material for the movie. Unlike the cuisine they "mastered," Julie & Julia feels undernourished. It's still an enjoyable experience. It's just not as filling as it could have been.