The moment an actor signs on to impersonate a well-known figure in a film is the moment that actor gives up any chance of delivering a naturalistic performance. Impersonating a famous person requires too many affectations of voice and manner, and too much high style, which overwhelm the everyman quality that neorealistic acting demands. If tremendous affectation doesn’t bother you, then you’ll likely find nothing to criticize in Meryl Streep’s performance in Julie & Julia, another Nora Ephron meringue of a movie that, this time, features literal meringue here and there, as if Ephron finally got snagged in her own worst metaphor. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before Streep took on Julia Child, because it’s hard to imagine anyone else cast as the pituitary dynamo who fills a movie screen as completely as she once filled a television screen. And if you enjoy Ephron’s body of work, which includes Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, chances are you’ll fundamentally disagree with this review’s star rating; but I’m not sure Ephron can hide behind genre when she casts powerhouses like Streep and Stanley Tucci in leading roles, and when she depicts cultural icons like Julia Child. That kind of movie deserves genuine inspection.
Granted, this film doesn’t set out to do much more than tease us with images of fine food and sweeten our blood with Amy Adams’ Pixy-Stix antics, and maybe celebrate the fact of Julia Child through American eyes. Julie & Julia was never intended to be a biopic. It’s based in equal measures on Child’s My Life in France and on Julie Powell’s 2005 blog-to-book sensation that documented her efforts to cook her way through Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a single year. A few solemn moments in Child’s life are waved at—her childlessness; her husband’s investigation by HUAC—but by and large the film prefers to showcase Child’s more exuberant times, like the first meal she had in France (a perfect sole meunière) which changed her perspective on food, and a series of Valentine’s Days shared with her husband Paul, played by Tucci in his straight-man mode. When Streep is onscreen, she delivers her most whimsical persona (the one we recently saw in Mamma Mia!) squared off by Child’s buttoned-down mass that can barely contain the latter’s signature whirl. As I said, the affectation is there in every whoop and giggle and roll of Streep’s eye, but in her hands it’s cleverly done and mitigated by an ounce—just a single dry ounce—of soul. Streep squeezes sorrow out of Child’s eternal optimism that reminds us (Mad Men-style) that the 1950s and early 1960s was an era fully lived even while it was often being fully paved over by convention.
Convention is something Child and her husband strain again, and it’s also something Julie Powell, living in 2002, strains against in tandem whenever Amy Adams appears onscreen to portray her (the narratives of the two women, decades apart, are intercut throughout the film). Like Child, Powell has looked into a vacuum and turned to food to stake out her own success. Demoralized by her government gig, she challenges herself to make every recipe in Child’s classic cookbook, even if it means de-boning a duck and killing a lobster (to the tune of the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer,” a scene that nails the silliness that sometimes erupts between couples). She blogs about her progress with her face screwed into scrunches, makes culinary magic between meltdowns, and has cutesy fights with her husband, Eric (Chris Messina). Typical Adams, in other words, though with less makeup this time, which gives her an appealing normalcy. Fans of Adams, like fans of Streep or Ephron, will probably come away satisfied, since each woman is doing what she does best in an attractive little studio yarn, while delivering all the feel-good flair of a romantic comedy released on Christmas Day. The movie defies you not to feel the warmth of its final instant, when the screen freezes an exultant Child moments after learning her cookbook will be published.
It’s the rest of us who’ll come away underwhelmed. For all the normal-cute Adams delivers, and for all the praise Streep will garner for her performance, and for all the lovely love-of-food on display, Ephron’s film is weighed down in places by studio stupidity. There are some truly bad scenes in this movie, like the power lunch Powell attends with three frenemies whose only purpose as characters is expositive; we’re told in Sex in the City shorthand that Powell needs to feel more successful—but not in so obviously corporate a manner as those other women (of course not, how gauche). Whether or not this lunch actually took place for the real Powell is immaterial once it’s pasted on a movie screen. Like the last-minute disappointments we see coming a mile off and the overnight success we see coming a mile off, the scene is pure Ephron formula, empty of meaning. While Julie & Julia isn’t a romantic comedy in the sense that Ephron’s Meg Ryan movies are, it bears all those threadbare hallmarks, engineered to hit certain buttons in its target audience. Those of us to one side of that target risk getting splattered by the flying taffy, and those of us who were lured in by the foodie premise will be doubly annoyed. As much as I relate to Powell’s character—I also love to cure a hard day with therapeutic chopping—Ephron’s formula stifles the kitchen truths embedded in the story. What truths survive are transmuted into cliché. The certainty and comfort that Powell, Child and other foodies find at the stove (when all else fails) is turned into a different sort of certainty and comfort—that of a specific film genre that will tickle its adherents and vex everyone else. — Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published on In Review Online on September 15, 2009.)