It should come as no surprise that Meryl Streep’s delightfully daffy turn as Julia Child, the woman who demystified French cuisine for American households, is the freshest ingredient in “Julie & Julia.” Otherwise, this middling melange of Child biopic and contempo dramedy feels overstuffed and predigested as it depicts two ladies who found fame and fulfillment in their respective eras by cooking and writing about it. Despite the lack of shared screen time, the reteaming of “Doubt” duo Streep and Amy Adams under the femme-friendly imprimatur of writer-director Nora Ephron should yield tasty returns for this self-satisfied foodie fairy tale.
“Julie & Julia” shares its title with Julie Powell’s barbed-and-bubbly 2005 book about her plan to chop, stir, bake and whip her way through Child’s seminal 1961 cookbook, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Powell’s blog devoted to her crazy yearlong experiment, dubbed “The Julie/Julia Project,” developed enough of a following to earn her a book deal and, as the end titles note with characteristic cuteness, inspire this movie. Probably aware that Powell’s story alone wouldn’t sustain an entire feature, Ephron opted to divide the film’s 122-minute running time between Julie and Julia, also drawing material from the latter’s posthumously completed 2006 memoir, “My Life in France.”
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Upon arriving in Paris in 1948 with her husband, Paul (Stanley Tucci), who has taken a job at the American embassy, Julia (Streep), a self-described “36-year-old, rather loud and unserious Californian,” is enraptured by French culture in general and French cuisine in particular. The pic efficiently traces Julia’s determined rise from impassioned gourmand to master cook, from her education alongside unfriendly male competition at the Cordon Bleu school to her friendship with fellow epicureans Simone Beck (Linda Emond) and Louisette Bertholle (Helen Carey) — her eventual collaborators on the 524-recipe cookbook that no publisher would initially accept.
Meanwhile, in a rickety Gotham apartment circa 2002, Julie (a redheaded Adams), alarmed at the prospect of turning 30 and having little to show for it, embarks on her insane assignment — working as a government secretary by day, cooking and blogging by night. Fortunately, Julie’s husband, Eric (Chris Messina), loves her enough to put up with her exaggerated mood swings whenever a dish goes awry, though his patience and sensitivity wear thin as the project drags on.
And so the film implies a kinship between two women who never meet, united across time and space by their love of butter, their doting husbands, their search for meaning through pleasure and their struggles to see their work in print. (Call it “Publisher-less in Paris.”) The crucial difference, one Ephron doesn’t seem to grasp, is that while Julie courts the fickle attentions of the blogosphere and the media, Julia yearns to create something of lasting value, a work with genuine potential to enrich people’s lives. Ironically, the pic’s decision to foreground Julia’s life only ends up trivializing it; by conflating the characters so neatly, “Julie & Julia” becomes the slick, presumptuous vanity project that Powell’s book was not.
Doing her formidable best to counteract these drawbacks is Streep, whose 5-foot-6 frame makes her an imperfect physical match for the 6-foot-2 Julia, but who proves more than up to the challenge of tackling this beloved celebrity’s equally outsized personality. Delivering an elegant approximation of the woman’s distinctly flutelike vocal pitch and endearing mannerisms, Streep abundantly conveys the warmth, rich humor and joie de vivre so evident in Julia’s TV appearances and her writing. She and Tucci (as fine a foil here as he was in “The Devil Wears Prada”) etch moving portraits of two people who can scarcely conceal their delight at being married to each other.
As a more prosaic and bickersome modern couple, Adams and Messina acquit themselves well enough; Adams, rather miraculously, manages not to sink under the weight of her character’s cloying perkiness and weepy hysterics. The overall tone of the present-day material strikes familiar, unsubtle romantic-comedy beats, with a few catty dashes of “Sex and the City” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary” thrown in to taste.
While Ann Roth’s costumes and Mark Ricker’s production design nail the dual milieus with impressive versatility, the Paris scenes feel slightly gauche and unconvincing; commercial considerations likely account for the near-total absence of French dialogue. Most disappointingly, aside from the occasional glimpse of boeuf bourguignon, the film misses a clear opportunity to offer glorious culinary eye candy on the level of “Babette’s Feast” or “Eat Drink Man Woman.” Whatever auds make of “Julie & Julia,” it’s hard to imagine that Julia Child herself, an unapologetic Francophile with one hell of an appetite, would have been much of a fan.