Like the concoctions and confections photographed so lovingly in the film, Julie & Julia goes down easy, a story of two women's parallel lives in which husbands are supportive, rich food doesn't make you fat, and good friends come over for dinner. It's a Nora Ephron movie, of course, which means that no heartbreak will last long and even poor people have exquisitely decorated apartments. But unlike some of Ephron's recent misfires, Julie & Julia has an ace in the hole with Meryl Streep, who once again has turned a summertime lark into something surprisingly satisfying.
There might have even been a great movie in here somewhere, had Ephron been bold enough to simply give the screen over to Streep and tell only Julia Child's story. Instead, this is a movie inspired by a bestselling book, Juile Powell's memoir about her experiment to cook all 524 recipes in Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Powell's blog about the project became a book, and though Child was merely an inspirational figure for her during the year of cooking, Ephron has wisely paired Powell's story with Child's, following both women in 50 years apart as they learn to cook, kiss their husbands, and change their lives in the process.
Powell (Amy Adams), a secretary working near the recently destroyed World Trade Center back in 2002, starts her blog at the encouragement of her "saint" husband Eric (Chris Messina), and endures all manner of frustration and embarrassment as she struggles through complex recipes like aspic and bouef bourginon. The blog gives her a purpose as it attracts more readers, but it also complicates life in her tiny studio apartment, as she squabbles with her husband as often as she feeds him.
50 years earlier, in post-war France, Julia Child's life wasn't much like Julie Powell's, except for the food and the exceptionally supportive husband Paul (Stanley Tucci, a delight). She takes up cooking classes at the revered Cordon Bleu from lack of something better to do, and discovers her delight in learning knife techniques and even cracking lobsters. A chance encounter introduces her to Simone Beck (Linda Emond) and Louise Bertholle (Helen Carey), who are struggling to write a French cookbook for American women, and enlist Child's help. This section of the film is based on Child's memoir with Alex Prud'homme, My Life in France, which drew heavily from letters she and Paul wrote home at the time. As a result we get wonderful personal details, like Julia and Paul's mid-afternoon trysts or their Valentine's Day speeches to one another, as well as a tender subplot in which Julia's sister (Jane Lynch) falls in love and gets pregnant as Julia struggles to conceive.
The imbalance between the two stories isn't as severe as it might have been, thanks to the easy chemistry between Adams and Messina and Powell's relatable, everywoman quality. There's no doubt whose lives we'd rather have, watching Julia sniff fresh produce in delight and Julie struggle with groceries on the subway, but there's a familiar charm to the more modern woman's cramped existence. Still, the single best reason to see the film is Streep and Tucci together, turning their Devil Wears Prada rivalry into a funny, deeply romantic marriage, full of quips and sex and lots of amazing food. The movie's version of Child is admittedly an idealized one, but with Powell's story as a realistic anchor, it's easy to be swept away by Paul and Julia's rich, decadent, and utterly unattainable life.
Given that nothing much happens in the movie, and the climactic conclusion of both stories is the publishing of a book (though Powell's happens after the film's conclusion), it's easy to see Julie & Julia as an inert exercise in food porn. But the emotional truths in and out of the kitchen, plus Streep's dynamite presence, makes for a movie that's surprisingly engaging escapism. Plus it's a movie about two women whose lives aren't consumed by men, children, or shopping, but by what makes them happy. It's not exactly a feminist manifesto, but man is it refreshing.