Much like meals themselves, movies about food or with food as a center-piece can be hit or miss depending on the ingredients. Appealing food helps obviously, but so does the story behind it and the cast bringing it all to life. Some of the best in the genre include Eat Drink Man Woman, Like Water For Chocolate, and the insane The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover. The latest entry into the foodie film field comes courtesy of writer/director Nora Ephron, whose Julie & Julia is a mash-up of two bestselling books… one a famous American cook and the other a blogger with a book deal. Unfortunately, the finished product may be more of an appetizer than a three-course meal.
Julie Powell (Amy Adams) is an unhappy woman living and working in modern-day New York City. She’s content with her husband Eric (Chris Messina), but her job and life seem unfulfilling. She finds comfort in cooking and one day while searching for something to focus her mind on she decides to cook and blog her way through all 524 recipes in Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Halfway around the world and half a century earlier, Julia Child (Meryl Streep) is walking the streets of Paris also in search of a purpose. Her husband Paul (Stanley Tucci), is stationed there, and her quest for fulfillment leads her to cooking school and an invite to help write a French cookbook for American women. Julie & Julia alternates between these two stories and follows both women as they bond through time and space over French cuisine.
If after reading that synopsis you’re left wondering where the actual plot is you’re not alone. I’m wondering the same thing after seeing the movie. Both characters are basically bored with their lives until they discover cooking and writing, so they cook and they write. And before you know it the credits are rolling. There’s no real obstacles for the characters to face or overcome which means no real drama. Sure Child isn’t exactly welcomed into the Le Cordon Bleu cooking program, but that’s hardly a true conflict. The film teases her husband’s involvement in the McCarthy hearings in D.C., but it’s all side talk. And Powell’s biggest problem seems to be her lack of focus that quickly becomes a very tight focus to the detriment of her marriage. Even this is something we’re told more than we’re shown, and when her husband leaves her one night in a huff it seems like an incredible over-reaction to a five-second argument.
Lesser issues exist too. They wouldn’t stand out as much as they do if there was a real plot or narrative to divert the attention, but since there isn’t… Jane Lynch shows up as Child’s sister, but in addition to looking like she’s ensconced in an oddly shaped fat-suit Lynch is unable to shake her comedic shtick as displayed in Role Models and The 40 Year Old Virgin. She’s a funny lady but it doesn’t match the tone of the rest of the movie. Speaking of fat-suits, Streep is artificially enhanced as well to make her appear taller, but in addition to special shoes her feet are quite often blocked by conspicuous furniture or foliage presumably to hide the platform she’s standing on. It quickly becomes a running game for the viewer trying to identify how Ephron will manipulate her height from scene to scene.
The singular strength in Julie & Julia rests with the performances. Streep and Adams never share the screen, but they both command it for half of the movie. Julia Child impressions are commonplace to the point caricature, and the film recognizes that by including an old sketch from “Saturday Night Live” with Dan Ackroyd as Child. Streep manages to present a Child that meets those exaggerated expectations but still appears real and restrained. She has immense fun with the role, and it’s always nice to see Academy-Award winning actresses talking about stiff cocks. Adams also impresses with one of her first roles to cast her as more of a real woman and less of a character (princess, nun, Amelia Earhart, etc). Plus she’s just damn cute with her pixie haircut and contagious smiles.
Interestingly, both roles deftly avoid any of the real criticisms or controversies surrounding their real-life counterparts. This is a smart decision for the light fluff of a film that Ephron was obviously aiming for, but extra weight would have been appreciated. Instead we have two fantastic actresses playing unchallenged women in an idealized world where the men are absolute saints and the food is calorie free. I respect Ephron’s effort to combine two real-world people and books into one film, but I think a film entirely dedicated to Child’s story would have been far more interesting and successful.
The men in the film have smaller roles and less screen-time, but their performances are equally impressive. Messina has the thankless job of portraying a supportive husband with no story of his own but he pulls it off. Cue compliments, cue jokes, cue argument… it’s an empty, cardboard character, but he fills it with more life and heart than most actors could. And Tucci? Probably the best performance in the movie. He’s confident, casual, and so obviously in love with Child you come to believe he may just actually love Streep.
By the end of Julie & Julia you’ll probably find yourself hungry, and not just for that delicious looking bruschetta from earlier in the film. (We’ve made it three times since seeing the film!) The movie itself fails to satisfy or feel complete in any way, and will probably leave you craving something more substantial. Both main characters move from A to B with little to no events between. They learn to cook. They cook. The end. Is it worth seeing for some very good performances? Perhaps, but I’ll leave that up to your individual tastes to decide.