Movies with food-related themes at their core have always appealed to me: I like eating, I like watching movies, why not combine the two? Julie & Julia does so quite deftly, resulting in a lighthearted comedy that's very easy to like. And these days, a movie with intelligent humor and masterful comic performances is hard to find, so that should be enough to satisfy me. And it very nearly was, although I didn't feel quite appeased afterwards.
Nora Ephron directed the comedy, adapting two stories and squashing them together: Julie Powell cooking her way through Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 2002 as detailed on her blog and in her book Julie and Julia; and Julia Child going from bored housewife in Paris to cookbook co-author, as detailed in the book My Life in France.
Julie Powell (Amy Adams) is struggling with the crummy apartment she and her husband are renting in Queens and her dead-end job providing phone support for 9/11 survivors and victims' families. She wants to be a writer, but can't finish any writing projects. To give herself something rewarding to do, and a project she'll hopefully finish, she decides to cook every recipe in the first cookbook Julia Child co-authored. Her husband goes through a lot of patience and a lot of antacids as Julie works her way through lobster and poached eggs and aspics.
Powell's story is interspersed with that of the woman she wishes she could be, at least in the kitchen: Julia Child (Meryl Streep). Child's story begins with her arrival in Paris in the 1950s, where her husband Paul (Stanley Tucci) has been stationed, and where she hopes to find something to do besides being a housewife and eating French cuisine. As we all know, she eventually settles on cooking and in a very determined way, learns everything she can and starts to teach French cooking to Americans.
Like Ephron's lovely novel Heartburn (we won't discuss its mediocre movie adaptation), Julie & Julia focuses on food, but food as a metaphor for love and passion. Paul Child, played subtly by Tucci, is a wonderfully supportive husband who loves everything his wife cooks and is always up for postprandial intimacy. Eric Powell (Chris Messina) puts up with his wife's kitchen "meltdowns" while waiting for her to find balance between cooking, work (she blogs from the office, tch tch tch) and marriage. Characters who have relationship problems can't cook as well as the ones with happy marriages in this movie.
Unfortunately, the movie itself lacks the passion and fearlessness that its main characters incorporate -- or try to -- in their lives. Obviously, no expects a suspense thriller or an action-adventure extravaganza from Julie & Julia. But the film is virtually plotless, and its best moments often have little to do with the actual narrative. The scenes with Julia and her sister Dorothy, played to the hilt by Jane Lynch, are some of the best in the film, but you could have cut the entire Dorothy sequence and not affected the storyline. Its point seems to be one that was made earlier in the film -- Julia's sorrow about her childlessness -- and the restressing is not necessary. But the film would not be nearly as funny without Lynch.
Julia Child's storyline is more fun to watch than Julie Powell's. Part of this is due to the performances from Streep and Tucci -- Meryl Streep may not look much like Julia Child, but she throws herself into the role wholeheartedly, even re-creating the famous TV show where the potato pancake flies out of the pan. How can Amy Adams and Chris Messina compete? The film's length doesn't help, either -- it's a hair over two hours long, and could have easily taken a cut of about 20 minutes, preferably from the Powell story. Julia Child's story seemed to end almost arbitrarily, and Powell's ending didn't quite satisfy.
Even with the long running time (for a comedy) and the lack of a strong plot, Julie & Julia is a charming film, especially for those with foodie tendencies. It's a comfort-food movies, the mac and cheese or apple-pie of this year's summer movie fare. And I like apple pie and mac and cheese just fine, but I feel that the potential for something less run-of-the-mill and more passionate, complex and memorable was there and sadly, was missed.