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Review: 'Julie and Julia'

In this summer-soufflé of a movie, Meryl Streep's rendering of Julia Child is a bravura comic performance.

By Peter RainerFilm critic of The Christian Science Monitor / August 7, 2009

Meryl Streep protrays chef Julia Childs in Columbia Pictures' "Julie & Julia," which opens nationwide Friday.

Columbia Pictures/Sony/Jonathan Wenk/AP

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You don't have to know who Julia Child is in order to appreciate Meryl Streep's bravura comic performance in writer-director Nora Ephron's "Julie and Julia," but it helps. This actress who, for most of her career, specialized in roles of the utmost gravitas has, in recent years, unleashed her inner goofball – and we're all the better for it.

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I'm thinking not so much of "Mamma Mia!" which was less a performance than a vaudeville turn, but, rather, "Adaptation" and "A Prairie Home Companion." Comedy makes Streep seem ecstatically down to earth.

Julia Child, on the other hand, always came across as larger than life. At six-feet, two-inches and gawky, she didn't so much stand as teeter. With a stentorian voice pitched falsetto-high except for occasional runs down the octave, Child was perhaps the least likely star in the history of television. Although I didn't care about cooking, I used to watch her show "The French Chef" as a kid because I got such a kick out of her, especially when she would accidentally drop onto the floor some ingredient, like a piece of veal, and then, bemused, briskly wipe it off and plunk it into the pan.

Ephron's movie is really two movies: The first, and by far the best, is drawn from Child's posthumously completed 2006 memoir "My Life in France" and is all about how, at 36, stationed in France in 1948 with her US Foreign Service employee husband, Paul (the excellent Stanley Tucci), Child found her calling, becoming the first woman to graduate from the snooty, male-dominated Cordon Bleu before going on to co-write the classic "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" – the book that yanked America out of the processed food era (for a time anyway, alas).

The other film, set in 2002, is about the real-life Julie Powell (Amy Adams), who works a boring, stressful job for an organization involved in rebuilding the World Trade Center. Then she has brainstorm. In her off hours she will change her life by cooking all 524 of the recipes in "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" in 365 days, and blog about her experiences. A blog pioneer, she turns her writings into a book, "Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously," proving once again that the way to a publisher's heart is through its stomach. (As the film shows, the Monitor interviewed Ms. Powell in 2003, when she was about halfway through Ms. Child's book.)