If Julia Child had not chosen the right moment to powder her nose at an embassy party in Paris, she might never have met Simone Beck, and there might never have been the classic cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. If Julie Powell, at the end of a particularly trying day as a government drone, had not been struck on the way home that egg yolks, cream, sugar, and chocolate, if prepared correctly, always resulted in the miracle of a chocolate cream pie, there might never have been her blog, which became her book, which became the perfectly delectable film, JULIE AND JULIA. Its the very randomness that makes the story of both women and the film about them so breathtaking.
Subtitled that it is based on two true stories, it follows the parallel lives of the eponymous Julias, played by Amy Adams and Meryl Streep respectively, as they each find themselves at loose ends about what to do with the rest of their lives. It’s 2002 and Powell, the shining literary star of her class in college, has settled into a thankless job that saps her strength and any optimism that she might finish her novel, or anything else for that matter. After a wrenching move to Queens from Brooklyn with her editor-husband, Eric (Chris Messina), and a particularly upsetting interlude with one of her upwardly mobile college pals, she comes up with the scathingly brilliant idea that changes their lives. She will spend a year cooking her way through every recipe in Childs cookbook and blog about it.
Child’s story is told in tandem, starting in 1949 with her move to Paris with her diplomat husband, Paul (Stanley Tucci). It’s not into a dingy 900-square-foot walk-up like Powell’s, but rather an elegant apartment best described as luxurious without being stuffy. Still, life is not perfect. She’s too tall for the bed, it’s impossible to find clothes for her six-foot frame, and after a career of her own as a secretary, where she met the love of her life, she is pondering what to do with herself. That she hits upon learning to cook seems like kismet, even if the woman who runs the Cordon Bleu hates her on sight, and the other men in her class take a while to warm up to their giddily enthusiastic classmate.
The script by Nora Ephron employs witty cross-cuts of the two women as they strive to make their marks in the world, and is subtle but clever in the way it draws the parallels in their lives without trying to make them mirror images of one another. The writing provides both ladies a rich showcase to display their craft. The always astonishing Adams gets her snark on with a delightful, sweet but self-absorbed abandon. When called upon to have a meltdown after a particularly ugly culinary mishap in Powell’s tiny kitchen, Adams becomes as jelly-like, physically and emotionally, as the aspic that has gone awry, eventually descending to the floor, laying on her back, with legs sticking out into the hall the way Child’s stick out over the edge of her bed in Paris, and weeping with the unrestrained grief of a child beyond hope of comfort. She’s equally affecting assuming the self-designation of lobster-killer when facing with fear, pity, and determination the murder of the three crustaceans that will shortly be dinner
If Powell is a wreck trying to get her bearings back, Child is all bluff, unvarnished bonhomie, filling the space around her with her large presence and even larger personality. Streep, hitting a bull’s eye with the ebullient enunciation Child used, also captures the woman’s enormous appetites, for food and for life, while also hinting at private sorrows on which she refused to dwell. She doesn’t just describe how beurre blanc is prepared; she acts out the chemical reactions involved and savors the aroma as well as the taste produced with a look of absolute bliss. Tucci, as Child’s extraordinary husband, Paul, her match in mischief and her unconditional supporter in all things, even when forced from his own kitchen by the mountain of onions his wife is using for practicing knife skills, wears his heart on his sleeve, but tempers it with a deadpan delivery and the distinct impression of his heart on his sleeve.
JULIE AND JULIA becomes more Julia’s film than Julie’s, but that’s far from a bad thing. With great panache, it celebrates butter, bravery, and believing in oneself, all excellent things, brilliantly executed.