Saturday, August 8, 2009

Movie Review: "Julie & Julia" is a mouth-watering feast

We timed our trip to see "Julie & Julia" perfectly, leaving the movie theatre and immediately heading to dinner at a lovely restaurant called Red's on the River. This was a good thing because watching Amy Adams and Meryl Streep work their magic on plate after plate of French cooking for 2 hours left all of us drooling a bit and anxiously in need of dinner. It also left us awed again at Ms. Streep's chameleon-like qualities and wondering if there's anyone currently performing in film who is as delightful to watch as Ms. Adams.

"Julie & Julia", for those who don't know, presents two parallel tales, one of Julia Child before she became the Julia Child and Julie Powell, the blogger and low-level government employee who sets out to cook all 524 recipes found in Child's seminal work, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, in 365 days. We see Child, the wife of a U.S. foreign service officer (the phenomenal Stanley Tucci), on her quest first to learn to cook true French cuisine while Paul is stationed in Paris starting in 1948 and then to get the cookbook she wrote with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle published in America. Meanwhile, in 2002, Julie Powell turns to blogging and Child's recipes as a means of breaking out of the rut and frustration of her job, achieving a goal, and in doing so reinvigorating her life and her marriage. Quite often laugh out loud funny, "Julie & Julia" examines the love affairs these two women have with French cooking as well as the men in their lives, a pleasant change from Nora Ephron movies in which the woman is in search of the right guy.

Towering over this movie much like the 6'2 Child herself is Meryl Streep's performance, which is jaw-droppingly good. Streep captures the mannerisms of Child without crossing over into imitation or caricature. She becomes Child in a truly remarkable and loving performance that is filled with verve and glee. She help us come to appreciate a larger than life woman who was somewhat goofy, committed to her craft, and dedicated to sharing her love of France and French cooking with fellow Americans. She flawless brings us along for the evolution of a woman who became not only a TV chef who most of us grew up watching but a cook taught us that cooking isn't perfect and everyone screws up an omelette flip sometimes ("You're alone in the kitchen. Who's to see?" Streep warbles, scooping the food back up and plopping it back in the pan).

However, it is her relationship with husband, Paul, that is the heart of Streep's half of the movie. Seeing Streep and Tucci together as Julia and Paul is to see a married couple deeply, madly, and passionately in love with one another, supportive of each other, and standing with each other at all times, for good or ill. Their performance together should be recognized as one of the great married couples on screen. It doesn't necessarily have the depth you find in a movie that focuses solely on a couple's marriage but it is so natural, so easy, so exquisitely sensitive that it took my breath away at times. The almost wordless scene in which Julia and Paul learn that her sister is pregnant while they themselves have not been able to conceive should be shown in drama classes as an examples of two masters of their craft at work. What's more amazing is that the whole time I watched them, so immersed in these roles, I never thought of Streep and Tucci's wonderful collaboration in "The Devil Wears Prada", which had memorable elements all of its own.

Adams does her best to stay step for step with Streep in her portrayal of Powell, alternately bubbly and full of joy and then melting down over spilled food, failed meals, and a sense that she might have bitten off more than she can chew. The food isn't the goal for her -- it's getting through the book, learning to cook, writing about, and doing it on a deadline that drives her. It becomes something of an obsession that drives away her husband Eric (Chris Messina) for a time, causes issues at her workplace, and forces her to get over various long-standing issues -- never eating eggs, de-boning a duck, and cooking live lobsters, among others. Adams carries these off with aplomb and if we don't feel quite as connected to Powell or as invested in her story, it's because Julia Child's side of the story is just that much more compelling. Even so, we celebrate along with Powell, Eric, and their friends when she serves the final recipe (the aforementioned duck).

And that, of course, is the other star of the film -- the food. Unlike the shows that spring up like weeds on Food Network and others, "Julie & Julia" will never be confused with food porn as such shows have been somewhat lovingly dubbed by my wife and mother-in-law. Instead, director Nora Ephron creates a movie that is a love affair with fine cooking as a means of stretching yourself, learning to expand your horizons, and appreciating a job well done. If the usually crisp and enthralling "Julie & Julia" is occasionally overdone or sometimes saggy, well it happens and it's still OK. Julia Child taught us that.

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