Friday, August 7, 2009

Review: "Julie & Julia"

2½ stars out of four
Screenplay by Nora Ephron, based on books by Julie Powell and Julia Child
Directed by Ephron
Starring Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Stanley Tucci, Chris Messina, Mary-Lynn Rajskub & Jane Lynch

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The trailer:

The plot (as described by studio flacks): Julia Child (Meryl Streep) and Julie Powell (Amy Adams) are featured in an adaptation of two bestselling memoirs: Powell's "Julie & Julia," and "My Life in France," by Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme. Two women who separated by time and space are both at loose ends ... until they discover that with the right combination of passion, fearlessness and butter, anything is possible.

My review: Amy Adams is perilously close to achieving terminal cuteness. For all of her skill as an actor, her chief asset is how downright adorable she is. It's why Frank Abagnale chose her in "Catch Me If You Can," and why seemingly the entire film world fell in love with her in "Enchanted." There are moments in "Julie & Julia" where she's just so ... precious. It gets to be too much.

In fact, the "Julie" half of "Julie & Julia" is entirely too much, with its heaping helpings of forced laughter and unconvincing melodrama. Julie Powell (Adams) is fed up with her job at a 9/11 relief agency, feels disconnected from her husband (Messina) and hates her gigantic New York City apartment. (After all, it's above a pizza place. Oh, the humanity! How a cubicle-bound bureaucrat and an editor at Archaeology magazine could afford it, though, I'll never know.)

She decides to fill the void in her life by attempting every recipe in Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" in one year, and blogging about it each night. The main attraction of this half of the movie is ogling the food; the beef bourguignon looked incredible.

The "Julia" half of the movie is fascinating and funny, chronicling the life of the master chef (Streep) from her arrival in France to the publication of her first, famous cookbook. Meryl Streep almost certainly has another Oscar nomination waiting for her in February -- it's a performance that goes beyond imitation and into personification, much like Cate Blanchett's turn as Katherine Hepburn in "The Aviator." Just as good is Tucci as her husband Paul, portrayed here as the kindest, most encouraging man on the face of the Earth.

The movie does not delve deep into Paul and Julia's experiences as agents of the OSS. We get fleeting glimpses of Paul appearing before HUAC, and one dinner conversation where Julia denies the couple were ever spies, but that's it. The "Julia" half of the movie is focused squarely on their love for food and for each other, and since they are brought to life so effortlessly by Ephron's screenplay and the two actors, that's all we in the audience really need.

And it's all we want, for that matter. We don't want endless scenes of Adams reading aloud whatever she's typing on her computer. (Between this and "You've Got Mail" -- everything considered, a more wholly successful movie than this one -- Ephron must be cinema's foremost director of talky-typey scenes.) Thankfully, Rajskub (Chloe from "24") shows up periodically as Julie's best friend, poking holes in whatever crisis, real or imagined, Julie is facing.

As the film drew to a close, I feared it would concoct some sort of fantasy sequence where Julie and Julia would meet, managing to tie the two stories together in some cosmic fashion. This does not happen. But neither does any solid connection between the two women, any sense of kinship. Julie Powell may love Julia Child, but Child never got the chance to love her back.

When it's all over, we are left very hungry, and very eager to try cooking that beef bourguignon. But mostly we're left asking why -- why wasn't the movie just called "Julia"?

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