All The Right Ingredients

While Dual Plot Lines May Seem Uneven At Times, This Buttery Comedy Boils Over With Charm And Wit

"Julie & Julia" *** (3 Stars)

August 07, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,michael.sragow@baltsun.com

Julie & Julia," the twinned tale of a groundbreaking cookbook queen, Julia Child (Meryl Streep), and a contemporary blogger, Julie Powell (Amy Adams), proves to be wacky, engaging entertainment. Writer-director Nora Ephron ("Sleepless in Seattle") fills it with colorful, mismatched parts. Happily, her fondness for the subject matter seals the rifts. For my money, this movie is by far her spriest and most likable achievement.

Child, in heady postwar Paris, enters an all-male class at Le Cordon Bleu and later, with French friends, prepares her chef d'oeuvre. She breaks barriers of international sexism and American cooking traditions with unself-conscious esprit. Powell, a government cubicle worker living in Long Island City, N.Y., starts the Julie/Julia blog, chronicling her preparation of all 524 recipes in Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" in a single year, to prove to herself that she has similar gumption and follow-through.

Powell's progress as a writer and a cook provides the movie's frame; she's touching in her attempt to stick to something when she's generally floundering. With warm imagery and clever narrative elisions, "Julie & Julia" glides easily between Child's and Powell's stories. To some viewers, these two characters will mark the difference between true grit (Child) and faux grit (Powell). The fault doesn't lie in these characters but in the contrast between the vibrant, fully fleshed-out France of the flashbacks and the hollow mingling of melancholy and careerism in Ephron's portrait of New York a year or two after Sept. 11.

Actually, each story contains its share of failed symmetries. Considering how much weight the movie puts on Child's achievement, its comedy would have been more resonant had Ephron more fully dramatized Child's aesthetic and scientific approach to recipes. Considering how much importance Ephron puts on marriage, she doesn't come up with a character for Powell's husband (Chris Messina) that is remotely adequate. When he erupts into fury, we're more shocked than Julie.

But each half is also blessed with a redeeming central performance, and I don't mean Streep's exuberant hamming as Julia Child. While Streep turns Child into a human Big Bird, Stanley Tucci, as her diplomat husband, Paul, responds to her with such beautifully inflected ardor that some of his marital passion rubs off on you. Tucci's simmering reality keeps Streep from floating off into the ether like a runaway Thanksgiving Day balloon. By the end, I didn't love her, but I was awfully fond of her.

Adams doesn't hit a single wrong key as Powell fumbles her way toward blogosphere success. Operating in a near vacuum, Adams pulls off something extraordinarily difficult: She creates a modest character working to the edge of her limitations. She sparkles when she lets you see how Julie sweats.

Most important, Ephron intuits her way toward an ebullient unifying theme. This movie is all about characters who struggle to find out where they fit in, then carve out a space of their own. I thought Ephron's big-hit romances suffered from the soft, weepy way they borrowed from old movies ("Sleepless in Seattle" from "An Affair to Remember," "You've Got Mail" from "The Shop Around the Corner"). "Julie and Julia" is more like Ephron's journalism: clear-eyed and witty. In "Julie and Julia," Ephron, like her heroines, has finally found what suits her: a surprising comic and romantic realism.

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some language and brief sexuality)

Running time: 2:03

Starring: Meryl Streep (Julia Child), Amy Adams (Julie Powell) and Stanley Tucci (Paul Child).

A Columbia Pictures release. Directed by: Nora Ephron.

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