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FILM REVIEW: JULIE & JULIA
By Michael Phillips
Chicago Tribune Movie Critic
"Julie & Julia," which could also be called "Butter & Butterer," may not be great cinema, but people going to a movie like this for great cinema are sniffing around the wrong kitchen. You go to a movie like this for the sauces and stews, and for the considerable pleasure of seeing (and listening to) Meryl Streep's drolly exuberant performance as Julia Child, the towering culinary icon with the distinctively plummy vocal intonations evoking a flute, an oboe and Ed Wynn after a couple of sherries.
Best known for "Sleepless in Seattle" and "You've Got Mail," writer-director Nora Ephron adapts and intertwines two books here, Child's "My Life in France" (co-authored by Alex Prud'homme) and Julie Powell's "Julie & Julia." The latter grew out of Powell's online experiment, a year spent cooking and blogging her way through all 524 recipes from the seminal Child volume "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." (This was in the off-hours from her job at the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. in the wake of 9/11.)
The movie is scrupulous in juggling its stories and time frames, to a fault: While Ephron surely wouldn't equate Powell's modest achievement with Child's, the structure can't help but inflate the former at the expense of the latter. Yet Amy Adams is very good as Powell. She sells it without overselling it, and while her domestic crises are eminently predictable - will the marital spat get resolved? Why, I believe it will! - Adams has a way of playing into a cliche so that it becomes tolerable, even viable. Everybody in this upscale comfort-food movie has been shrewdly cast, from Stanley Tucci (as Child's loving diplomat husband) to Chris Messina (as Powell's easygoing mate) to Linda Emond (a wide-eyed delight as Child's French cohort Simone Beck, who wrote the cookbook along with a third credited author, Louise Bertholle).
The film is two films, one beginning in 1949, with the Childs' arrival in Paris, the other beginning in 2002, with the Powells' arrival in Queens. We hear Streep's voice before we see her, and it's almost Ephron's way of revealing that, yes, Streep has once again nailed The Voice. As Child falls in love with Paris, the star's enthusiasm in playing such an enthusiastic sparkler is infectious. She and Tucci work in deft counterpoint - she's a fountain, he's a quiet pond - and the first time the Childs go to a bistro and taste the catch of the day, cooked in an ungodly amount of butter, the dialogue goes like this:
They're in heaven, and we're drooling.
At heart, "Julie & Julia" is a writer-empowerment picture, contrasting the painstaking, nearly decade-long development of Child's cookbook, while she and her husband contend with job reassignments all over the globe, with Powell's headfirst dive into her blog. It turns into a hit, and a book and (as the film's end credits say, proudly) a movie. One can't help but wonder if Ephron would've been better off focusing exclusively on Child: She's simply more interesting screen company. But Ephron's commercial touch serves her well here. And when Jane Lynch shows up as Child's even taller sister for a brief but choice scene, you're seeing simpatico comic acting of an exceptionally high order.
In some films Streep can come off like a solo act (especially in comedies); she's spectacularly assured every second but often in a way that trumpets all the details that go into a performance, from the dialect to the physicality. In "Julie & Julia" she's doing a lot, and you could describe certain bits as stooping (literally, stooping, the way Child used to) to shamelessness. Then she turns around and makes you cry. And then laugh again.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language and some sensuality).
Running time: 1:50.
Starring: Meryl Streep (Julia Child); Amy Adams (Julie Powell); Stanley Tucci (Paul Child); Chris Messina (Eric Powell); Linda Emond (Simone Beck).
Written and directed by Nora Ephron, based on the books "Julie & Julia" by Julie Powell and "My Life in France" by Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme. Produced by Laurence Mark, Ephron, Amy Robinson and Eric Steel. A Columbia Pictures release.
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