(No longer in theaters)
Nora Ephron, Laurence Mark, Amy Robinson, Eric Steel
Aug 7, 2009
For teachers of the method, shaping a character begins with psychological self-plumbing, but some actors find that by getting the externals right (cadence, physical mannerisms, wardrobe), they can cut a direct path to the soul. That’s the case with Meryl Streep as the middle-aged Julia Child in the comedy Julie & Julia: What begins as a great impersonation becomes a marvel of sympathetic imagination. The performance is transcendental. Streep’s voice is deeply musical, starting in the chest and erupting into that burbling falsetto with its trills and diphthongs. The voice is Streep’s way into Child’s pleasure centers, and the body—stiff-shouldered, sloshing around like an ocean liner—follows along in a kind of daffy interpretive dance. Streep isn’t tall, but she’s photographed carefully and projects height; she understands that the six-foot-two Child learned not to be ashamed of her size but to go with it. Her Julia is a force. At one point, she falls into bed with her husband, Paul (Stanley Tucci), and one’s instinctive response—“Julia Child having sex … Ewww …”—gives way to, “Julia Child having sex … Awesome!” Anything to hear that voice in full, happy throttle!
This is a Nora Ephron movie, which means cartoonish extroverts pulling faces. But Streep kicks it up about a million notches, and Ephron is an enthusiastic cook, so the film has some foodie texture. It’s a shame the protagonist isn’t Julia but Julie: Julie Powell (Amy Adams), who, in real life, distracted herself from a messy existence with a blog that chronicled her effort to cook all 524 dishes in Child and Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Powell’s book about that yearlong homage/ordeal is fast and fun, and the recipes are so out-of-fashion (aspic!) it’s like a voyage back in time. But when Ephron cuts between Paris in the fifties and Queens in 2002 to show Julia and Julie as they both achieve autonomy through cooking, The Godfather Part II this ain’t—the connection is strained. (The Child material is based on her memoir My Life in France, written with her nephew, Alex Prud’Homme.) Julie’s character doesn’t even track. She’s referred to as a “bitch,” but all we’ve seen is the patented Ephron adorable klutz. (Adams is too good to waste on Meg Ryan parts.) Ephron should make a film about the person she herself is (smart, acid) instead of the cutie-pixie of her dumb fantasies.
Julie & Julia is full of holes, but you don’t even care when Streep is onscreen. In one scene, Julia greets her sister at a train station, and the marvelous Jane Lynch makes a whooping entrance, a giantess even more ebulliently uncoordinated than her sister. Tucci’s Paul gazes on them like a man in clover. Tucci has a wonderful, easy presence here: My guess is his bedazzlement with Streep merged with Paul’s bedazzlement with Julia, and the whole is even greater than the sum of its parts. When actors like these are cooking, it’s better than haute cuisine.