“Love” is a six-letter word spelled B-U-T-T-E-R. If you agree, consider Julie & Julia tonight’s special.
For her premiere foray into culinary porn, writer-director Nora Ephron — normally of the rom-com persuasion — fused Julia Child’s My Life in France with Julie Powell‘s blog-turned-book, Julie & Julia.
No doubt readers know a thing or two about Child — in fact, perhaps you drop her last name altogether when referring to her, especially in a kitchen. But it’s worth noting, for the uninitiated, that her collaboration with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, was a game changer at its time of publication, teaching “servantless“ Americans other ways besides steaming to prepare vegetables. She herself learned to cook as a middle-aged woman at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, after an unfulfilling hatmaking stint.
You might say Powell rode on Child’s apron strings: The failed novelist cooked all 524 French Cooking recipes in just one year in a tiny New York apartment, and chronicled the experience on a popular blog called “The Julie/Julia Project.” The success of the blog garnered a book deal and now, a film adaptation.
From the start, Ephron juxtaposes the lives of the two women, both in the midst of relocating: Upon arriving in Paris — with its sidewalk cafés and wood-paneled, crown-molded interiors — Child (Streep) spouts to her husband, Paul (Tucci): “I can’t believe we get to live here!” Cut to poor Powell (Adams), in the distant future, whining “Why are we here?” to her hubby Eric (Messina) as she unloads dishes from a moving box into a dingy Queens apartment.
Julie and Julia need to find something to do in their new environs: Child has too much verve not to have a vocation, and Powell needs to assure herself that she is more than a cubicle drone. Streep and Tucci, reunited after the Devil Wears Prada, are heartwarming as a different kind of couple here, discussing Child’s options over a meal at a French restaurant. “What to you like to do?” he asks. “I like to eat!” she replies vivaciously, and they digress into flirtation. (I dare you to stop smiling when the two are onscreen together.)
Julie and Eric’s relationship is unexpectedly less sexual than the Childs’. Because the contemporary couple is not affluent, Julie can hardly afford to quit her day job. And blogging, as Eric comes to see it, is one of the world’s most self-centered activities. Never fear — Ephron sweetens this side of the story with hilarious quips (“I think I have ADD … It’s why I’m so bad at housework”), mouth-watering footage of chocolate-cream pie and boeuf bourguignon, and the best lobster scene since Annie Hall.
I doubt that even very good cooks want to be held to Julia Child’s standard any more than good actors want to be held to the standard of Meryl Streep. Adams, no amateur, gives a fine, if Meg Ryan-ish, performance as Powell, wrinkling her chin obstinately sometimes and other times absent-mindedly passing a martini back and forth between herself and Messina. It is not the chipper, ginger-haired actress’s fault that she looks a lightweight, for in addition to being cast opposite Streep, for goodness sake, Powell’s life doesn’t have the texture or passion that Child’s did.
Crowned queen of romantic comedies, Ephron has a specific gift for bringing individuals together across great divides using technology. In Sleepless in Seattle, a man and a woman living on opposite coasts connect over radio waves. In You’ve Got Mail, two disparate people establish a relationship online. Julie & Julia’s title characters figuratively connect via the internet (and over butter) — but they will never meet cute. In fact, Child is said to have had little regard for Powell’s blog. Understandable. Modern publishing technology has made it possible to upload a recipe in an instant, where Child’s labor of love took nearly a decade to reach the American cooks she so wanted to touch. And now, because of her tenacity, Powell’s 15 minutes of foodie fame have swelled to feature-film length. But “The French Chef” shouldn’t roll in her grave — Ephron knows which of her characters is immortal, and scenes of Child comprise the film’s first and final yummy courses. Bon appétit!
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