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Julia Child, no insult to say, was a lovably preposterous figure. Standing in the kitchen of her PBS series The French Chef, which debuted in 1963, she was scarily tall (6’2”). Leaning down, she would press those linebacker shoulders into the chicken she was butter-massaging, describing the process in that famously exacting, high-pitched warble —? a singsong quaver with a squawk of hysteria running through it. In Julie & Julia, Nora Ephron’s vivaciously wry and affectionate dramatization of how Julia Child became…Julia Child, the woman who taught America to cook, Meryl Streep plays Julia as a very grand figure of fun. Streep has made herself over so that she looks as tall and gawky as Big Bird (she’s also just as disarmingly cheery), and she exquisitely mimics that voice — the sound of a tipsy Victorian headmistress who has lost control of her flock.
Julie & Julia is structured as a two-part culinary adventure: The movie cuts back and forth between the true-life stories of two quirkily ambitious, self-invented strivers from vastly different eras. (It’s based on both of the women’s memoirs.) There’s Julia, who devotes herself, right up to the early ’60s, to co-writing, and finding a publisher for, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which will be the very first French cookbook ever written in English. And there’s Julie Powell (Amy Adams), a post-9/11 cubicle worker with the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, who in 2002 decides to save herself, and her husband (Chris Messina), from the doldrums by retreating after work to their cramped kitchen in Queens and cooking every recipe in that book — all 524 of them — in one year, while writing a blog diary about the experience. You could say that Julie & Julia is the first Nora Ephron movie that isn’t a romantic comedy. Only that wouldn’t be quite right. Not only is the film tartly witty, it’s about a very deep love affair: the one between Julia Child and the endless dinner party she thinks life can be, a party Julie extends, with ardent and neurotic intensity, into the present day.
Julia arrives in Paris, where her husband, Paul (Stanley Tucci), has been stationed by the OSS (the year is 1949), and when she sits down to her first Continental meal — it’s a savory sole meunière — she can’t believe how tangy-good it is. Streep makes Julia’s coos of pleasure as delighted as a baby’s gurgle. We’re invited to coo, and laugh, along with her, as the camera ogles the food — which it will continue to do, with taste-bud-teasing bliss, throughout the movie. Julia, a former clerk at the OSS herself (she mockingly hints that she’s been a spy), is casting about for something to do, so she talks her way into the Cordon Bleu cooking school, where she’s like Lucille Ball in basic training. Walking into the classroom, which is full of male (and only male) chefs, she tries, with abandon, to slice a pile of onions, and then perfects the skill at home by dicing a mountain of them.
It doesn’t take long to get used to the funny, goose-honk perfection of Streep’s impersonation. Only then, in fact, do we really start to connect to the serious, life-loving performance behind it. Julia’s gangly eagerness conceals a will of iron, as well as a generosity of spirit that’s too passionate to be merely funny. She’s a woman who wants to feed everyone, gloriously — herself and her husband, her friends and the world.
The Julia half of Julie & Julia is irresistible, the Julie half less so. Not that it doesn’t work, exactly. Amy Adams nails the obsessiveness of Julie’s devotion to her muse, Julia. She also captures the tactile pleasures, and challenges, of cooking (how in God’s name does one bone a duck?). And Ephron gives us nothing less than the first full-scale Hollywood portrait of the life of a blogger, in all its creative fire and solitary, caffeinated, how many comments did I get? midnight narcissism. Yet the movie wants to make Julie an edgy ”bitch” and soften her at the same time, which doesn’t exactly jell. What does jell is the drama of two women, hungry for recognition, sharing their earthy love of the kitchen across the decades and the generations. Though hardly a perfect soufflé, Julie & Julia is the movie American foodie culture has been waiting for. It hooks you up, happily, to your inner top chef. B+