This article originally appeared in the 8/9/09 edition of The Source.
Julie Powell believes that any meal can be improved with butter. Nora Ephron believes any movie can be improved with sugar.
It was probably a given then that when Ephron, the director of “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail,” decided to adapt Powell’s bestselling book “Julie and Julia”, the result would be an enjoyable treat that risks overdosing on sweetness.
The film chronicles Powell’s (Amy Adams) attempts at transformation in 2001. Trapped at a dull government job and watching her dreams of writing fame evaporate she decides to try her hand at cooking through all of the recipes in Julia Child’s famous cookbook “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Cheered on by her husband (Chris Messina), Powell finds herself hitting grocery stores after work, staying up late to bone ducks and prepare aspics and collapsing in frustration on the floor when the recipes go up in flames at the last minute.
The film parallels Powell’s story with Child’s (Meryl Streep) own transformation story set 60 years earlier. Recently relocated to Paris with her bureaucrat husband (Stanley Tucci), Child finds herself looking for something to do during the days. After hat-making doesn’t pan out, she enrolls in the prestigious Cordon Bleu cooking school, the lone woman in her class, her strapping height and cheerful demeanor winning her over with the teachers. Like Powell, Child also attempts literary success, as she prepares the first French cookbook for “servantless Americans.”
Adams is quickly becoming the go-to actress for quirky, sweet heroines. With her chipper demeanor and short haircut, she is a perfect replacement for Ephron’s previous muse, Meg Ryan. Despite being an Oscar nominee (“Junebug”), princess (“Enchanted”) and having proven just last year that she can hold her own In a drama (“Doubt,” which also starred Streep), Adams is still believable as the spunky girl-next door who is fed up with her job and itching for more than just an evening of pizza on the couch. True, the real Powell admits that Adams’ character has a cleaner mouth and Adams turns temper tantrums into quirky character tics rather than anything resembling real-life frustration; but the film is a comedy and Adams has a charisma about her that makes her instantly likable, even when her character is descending into culinary obsession with a woman she’s never met.
Ephron’s wit has always been best utilized in her observance of modern culture and there’s a funny scene near the beginning where Powell goes to lunch with her girlfriends, all of whom are pursuing lucrative business deals. While establishing Powell’s dilemma, the scene also provides a funny commentary on the self-absorption of city life and the pervasiveness of cell phones. Adams’ narration of Powell’s blog entries is also enjoyable, even as the constant positive messages and wordplay begins to get a bit too cute for the film’s good.
While Powell is ostensibly the film’s subject, the scenes following Child are by far more skillfully done. I was initially afraid that Streep would offer nothing more than an impression of the famous chef, but her body language, demeanor, quick wit and subtle moments of humanity create the rare three-dimensional picture of a well-known celebrity. Yes, it’s very funny to watch Child navigate her cooking classes and city life with her boundless optimism, but there’s a surprising tenderness in unexpected moments, mostly involving her marriage.
Here is where the film’s greatest strength lies. Ephron nearly singlehandedly created the “chick flick” genre. Yet while “Julie and Julia” is a film geared toward women, it is not a romance in the traditional sense. Both Powell and Child are already in strong, loving marriages when the film begins and the story’s great success is in seeing how those partners offered support, strength and encouragement to women struggling to find their purpose. Tucci especially is phenomenal as Paul Child, a deadpan and funny man who absolutely adores his wife; Tucci’s sense of humor and quiet dignity provide the movie’s strongest scenes. Messina is given far less to do than indulge Adams’ tantrums and partake in an awkward and contrived moment of conflict between Powell and her husband.
The film is much better when it leaves the drama at the door and allows Powell and Child’s stories the room to grow and breathe. Streep is so wonderful as Child, with her lilting voice and surprisingly risqué sense of humor that I would easily have sat through an entire biopic with her as the cook. The Powell storyline is interesting but becomes a tad too glossy and cute, a strong story of transformation buried under mounds of sugar. Ephron’s visual eye is as good as ever; I strongly suspect that if “Dinner and a Movie” wasn’t an option before the film, many audience members will make it one afterward.
And while the film does sometimes come across as too fluffy for its own good at times, it is a return to feel-good form for Ephron, who dabbled in cynicism with “Numbers” and with utter failure in “Hanging Up.” She gets a likeable performance from Adams, a strong one from Streep and a surprising one from Tucci, all wrapped up in a story of transformation and success that should appeal to Ephron’s audience. “Julie and Julia” may be fattening and oversweet, but it’s satisfying nonetheless.