by Norm Schrager, posted 08.06.09
If you’ve encountered any promo for Julie & Julia, what you’ve seen is pretty much what you’ll get: Strong women loving men, women loving food, food as life. That carries its own cliches, but Julie & Julia is better than just that. And what makes it better isn’t about what you get — it’s about what you don’t get.
In this case, you don’t get typical blueprint Nora Ephron formula. Ephron, who adapted two books to create the movie, seems to have finally matured as a filmmaker (at age 68). Look no further than two of Ephron’s most popular movies, Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, to find her trademark style. In those films plucky characters crack punchy lines, full of gee-gosh hope and cosmopolitan smarts. It’s artificial, obvious and often annoying. And it’s all sealed with a bow. That’s not the case here.
Who knew Ephron’s real writing skills were in creating well-formed adaptations? The first of her two source books is Julia Child’s “My Life in France”; the second is Julie Powell’s “Julie & Julia,” a woman’s recollection of falling in love with the idea of Julia Child, and how attempting her meals — and blogging about it — changed her life.
Ephron’s script moves easily between the two stories, alternating the beauty of postwar Paris, where the Childs reside for four years, with the gritty streets of Queens, where Powell resents her job with a post-9/11 organization. Ephron never hits us over the head with the parallels between the women’s lives, and there’s a welcome lack of obvious match edits.
But one thing is obvious: Despite her remarkably impressive career, Meryl Streep continues to amaze, perhaps now more than ever. As the irrepressible Ms. Child, Streep is the embodiment of a passionate life, throwing herself into her favorite things like a silly schoolgirl, completely oblivous to the naysayers and hurdles. Her energy is utterly contagious, and it practically carries the entire film — and the audience.
Streep’s physical and vocal portrayal of Julia Child has texture and natural wit, more of a kind impression than a funny impersonation. Like Philip Seymour Hoffman playing Truman Capote, Streep is able to affect a unique voice without sounding like a buffoon. Quite an achievement considering how often Child was ribbed for her sound (in fact, Dan Aykroyd’s famous portrayal is worked into the film).
As Julie Powell, Amy Adams doesn’t get the room to fully stretch. She’s a more typical Ephron character, a modern city girl with mousy tendencies and a drive to achieve more. Adams fills in all the blanks, with as much of a combination of cuteness and strength as she can muster. As she gets closer to her goal — prepare all the meals in Child’s famous introductory book — I’m not sure we necessarily care whether she makes it or not. At that stage, we get the point. And we’re in love with the Julia Child story anyway.
A story made fuller and all the more romantic thanks to Stanley Tucci as Child’s husband, a man equally full of life’s passion, albeit with a much quieter approach. Tucci has us believing his love for Julia, and the ease with which he supports her crazy “hobby.”
As Julie & Julia progresses, there’s plenty to celebrate, but Ephron smartly avoids some grand, music-swelling conclusion. Perhaps we can thank the women’s real lives, but Hollywood often screws with the truth. In this case, Ephron made sure to stick to the facts and avoid some of the cliches for which she’s built a career. And for that, we should be grateful.