Julie and Julia markets itself as being based on "two true stories": one of Julie Powell, a secretary-turned-blogger who endeavors to cook every recipe in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year; the other of Child herself, also a secretary-turned-writer and chef who brought French recipes to American cooks. But what happens if one of the two true stories just doesn't deserve equal time?
The trouble with Julie and Julia is, quite simply, that it would be a better as just Julia. Not that I blame anyone for trying to merge these two lives: Powell's original blog and book, which combines her story and Julia's, seem like good fodder for a big-screen adaptation. If anything, the trouble is more a tribute to Meryl Streep, whose big, boisterous Julia Child sweeps onto the screen and demolishes any other story that might try to rise around her. Once you meet her delightful Julia, it's hardly surprising that Julie's story pales in comparison.
Julie and Julia flashes back and forth through time, splitting its time between Julie's 2002 life in a tiny New York apartment and Julia's Parisian life in the late 1940s and early '50s, where a passion for French food led her to learn to cook. To be fair to writer/director Nora Ephron, who put the stories together for film, Julie and Julia's lives do have plenty of parallels: Both are (or have been) secretaries looking for something more to do. Both love food and find solace in cooking. And both are shown in the film pre-fame — before Julia became a household name, before a New York Times story helped turn Julie's blog from a side project into a published book. But that's about where the similarities end. To talk more about it, read more.
It shouldn't be surprising that Streep shines, but I was floored by how much I loved her Julia. Streep herself isn't particularly tall, but as Julia, she takes up the whole screen, towering over her doting husband, Paul (Stanley Tucci). She's dominating and inappropriately loud, but ultimately, she's irresistible. Whether she's whacking away at a lump of dough, gleefully starting a cooking school, or drawing stares from the French when her equally tall and magnetic sister (Jane Lynch, in a brilliant piece of casting) comes to town, she's a joy to watch. She seems to know that any defeat she might suffer — like failing her cooking school final or having her cookbook rejected— is just a speedbump on the way to something bigger. By the end of the film, I wanted to be Julia Child, or at least be her best friend — not necessarily for the cooking (though that would be nice) but for the resilient and loving spirit she brought to life.
The movie's Julie Powell, on the other hand, is harder to love. She's more passive, more concerned with what others think, and more self-deprecating. And more selfish, too — her cooking project nearly ruins her marriage on more than one occasion. Some of the Julie stories work well: her attempts to kill her first lobster or create and eat a disgusting plate of something en gelee get plenty of chuckles. Amy Adams is a good fit for the role, which calls for a tricky blend of vulnerability and anger, and on some level, it's wonderful to see Hollywood embrace a female protagonist who's deeply flawed and deeply stubborn. But she suffers in comparison to Julia, who handles greater obstacles with more grace. In the end, the Julie sequences feel like something to get through so we can hang out with Julia again.
The biggest letdown of Julie and Julia is that we may never get another shot at a glossy, gorgeous, commercial big-screen biopic of Julia Child. From Streep's performance here, I would have gladly bought a ticket to that movie. I'll settle for this one, which certainly has its moments, but that won't stop me from wondering what could have been.
Photos courtesy of Sony Pictures