Pigs are flying, hell has frozen over and Nora Ephron’s made a charming little film.
Architect of every odious modern romantic comedy cliche, Nora Ephron initially got famous for being cheated on by Washington Post writer Carl Bernstein, and somehow parlayed her misfortune into a profitable career turning affable screen presences like Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks into annoying simps in such ubiquitous cable staples as Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. Last glimpsed four years ago at the helm of the nigh-unwatchable Bewitched , Ephron had apparently retired to that weird celebrity netherworld of Martha’s Vineyard parties and easily ignored Huffington Post editorials.
Or maybe she went to film school?
Not that Julie & Julia is any great shakes, but it’s a breezy little bauble, coasting on the formidable charisma of its stars and crafted with an attention to detail heretofore unseen in the Ephron oeuvre. Yes, it’s a trifle. But when it’s over it feels like you’ve seen an honest to gawd movie—one that’s thematically coherent and a bit wiser than expected.
To explain: In early 2002, young Julie Powell (played by the ever-fetching Amy Adams) was on the brink of 30 and lost. Driven to tears daily by her day job at a lower Manhattan rebuilding project, with the vast chasm of Ground Zero lurking just outside the office window, the once-promising Amherst grad was the laughingstock of former classmates, a failed novelist at a career dead end.
But then Powell discovered these newfangled things called blogs, located on that crazy Internet information superhighway. Finding solace in the kitchen, Julie Powell decided to cook all 524 recipes in Julia Child’s seminal 1961 book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking , within a year, writing about the results in daily missives on Salon.com.
Cooking and writing give Powell a sense of purpose, not to mention a stalkerish obsession with everybody’s favorite matronly TV chef. Ephron’s script deftly skips back and forth, contrasting young Julie’s misadventures in her Queens kitchen with Julia Child’s early postwar career in France, as she struggled to find her own path after retiring from the OSS.
Ephron’s ace in the hole here is Streep’s predictably glorious performance as Julia Child. Propped up on lifts to reach 6-foot-2 and padded out to Child’s imposing linebacker frame, Streep nimbly apes that famous warbly voice and bemused laugh, clomping around the set like a delightful giantess. It’s a warm, affectionate portrait full of clumsy, earthy humor. (The good-natured kidding even extends to letting Dan Aykroyd’s famous SNL parody of the French Chef play out on-screen in its entirety.)
Ephron and Streep also lend Child a giggly, randy edge that will be ever so slightly disturbing for those of us kids who grew up on PBS. She’s always sneaking off for nooners with her doting husband, Paul (Stanley Tucci), and at one point lets rip the phrase “hotter than a stiff cock.”
Hardly ridden with conflict, Julie & Julia doesn’t have much at stake beyond Child occasionally butting heads with snooty Cordon Bleu execs and Powell struggling with aspics. Yet in a way the lack of incident is strangely refreshing, as the movie is really all about finding something you love and doing it well.
Despite a few bouts of blogger narcissism on Powell’s part and a couple of prying questions from Sen. Joe McCarthy about Paul Child, Ephron’s film isn’t particularly concerned with drumming up plot momentum. It merely invites us to hang out with these characters and watch them discover what they do best.
I enjoyed seeing Adams’ wide-eyed enthusiasm steel itself into newfound professional confidence, and every moment spent watching Streep’s bull in a china shop movements and irrepressible giddiness is one to treasure.
Mention must also be made of Stanley Tucci’s understated performance as Paul Child. This is a rare movie that portrays husbands as patient, supportive folks instead of misunderstanding boobs, and it’s tough not to be touched by Tucci gazing upward at his wife in love-struck adoration. He always looks at her like she’s the most beautiful woman in the world, no matter how awkward it might appear when they’re dancing together.
A running time of 123 minutes is probably a little long for this sort of thing, but what the hell. Not every movie needs to be angsty or action-packed. My interest in the culinary arts extends about as far as TV dinners and cold-cut sandwiches, but I sure liked spending time with these people. Sometimes that’s all you need. ■
Julia Child died: in 2004 at 91
What Powell wrote on her blog when Child died: ”Julia didn’t create armies of drones, mindlessly equating her name with taste and muttering ‘It’s a Good Thing’ under their minty breath. Instead she created feisty, buttery, adventurous cooks, always diving in to the next possible disaster, because goddammit, if Julia did it, so could we.”
Movies were quick to exploit the information superhighway, and the conclusion remains thus: No, sir, it’s not good.