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.
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.)
Ephron intercuts these two women's lives in fairly simpleminded fashion. The idea, I suppose, is that Julia (as I will now refer to the great lady) is the avatar and Julie the acolyte. They are linked across space and time. Both women turn their lives around through cooking, and both have adoring husbands who reap the bliss, not to mention the boeuf bourguignon.
There's something blandly, but also pushily, inspirational about all this, especially the Julie parts. It's like being put through a candy-colored motivational seminar. Change your life! Find something you love to do and do it!
The bliss factor in this movie is so high that Ephron has to work hard, particularly with Julie, to get any conflict going. Julie's husband Eric (Chris Messina), who edits an archaeology magazine, is by any measure a saint, and so, of course, there must be a scene where he protests "I am not a saint." But except for the ever-present bottle of Tums on his nightstand, he seems to be in hog heaven throughout. It's never really explained how this couple, on a meager income, can afford all these fancy meals, but at least Ephron didn't take the low road and turn Eric into a bank robber or something. (Messina, according to the press notes, was chosen for the role in part because he "simply looked good chewing a mouthful of Lobster Thermidor.")
Amy Adams is a charming performer, but her role, not to mention her performance, just doesn't measure up to Streep's. I wish Ephron had jettisoned the Julie stuff altogether and made "Julia" instead (especially since the two women never meet). On the other hand, what actress in her right mind would want to go up against Streep in all her goony glory? (Well, Jane Lynch, in a wonderful cameo as Julia's sky-high sister, does.) One can make a case, though I wouldn't, that what Streep is doing here is more impersonation than performance. But who cares about such fine distinctions when the work is so enjoyable?
Ephron does one very difficult thing very well: She makes absolutely believable a genuinely happy marriage. They're so happy together that Ephron drags in Julia's childlessness and Paul's McCarthy-era political woes as party poopers, but her heart's not in it. In their smitten silliness, Julia and Paul are made for each other in the same way that Shakespearean lovers (and clowns) sometimes are. There are many things wrong with "Julie and Julia" but, if you're looking to get hitched, you won't find a better booster. Just make sure that one of you can cook. Grade: B- (Rated PG-13 for brief strong language and some sensuality.)