At 6’2″, American cookbook author and TV star Julia Child (Meryl Streep, Doubt) was larger than life-size in everything she did. She was passionate about fine food, especially French cuisine, loaded with butter (“fat gives things flavor”) and always downed with a glass or two of good wine. “In France,” she reminded Americans, “cooking is a serious art form and a national sport.”
Through the vicissitudes she and her husband endured in the American diplomatic corps during McCarthyism, the decade-long travail of writing and getting her famous cookbook published, and the private ache of being unable to have children, Julia stayed madly in love with her husband, Paul Child (Stanley Tucci, The Devil Wears Prada), who was ten years her senior and a head shorter.
Julia Child barged through life with overflowing enthusiasm and then took on enormous proportions in American homes with her ebullient, often hilarious TV personality. “Never apologize!” she’d honk when she dropped a naked chicken onto the floor, patted it off and plopped it right back on the cutting board. Americans loved her and loved to make fun of her, too. Dan Ackroyd’s famous satire of her on Saturday Night Life remains one of icons of American TV.
In her final days, while in her early 90s (“I just hate health food”), assisted by her nephew, Alex Prudhomme, Julia was working on her last book, a memoir entitled My Life In France, about her halcyon days in France and how its people and cuisine transformed her life. “I was 32 when I started cooking,” she said, “up until then, I just ate.” (She died two days shy of her 92nd birthday in 2004.)
Meanwhile a young American woman in Queens is also writing and cooking. But her circumstances couldn’t be more different from what Julia Child experienced at her age. Julie Powell (Amy Adams, Doubt), nearing her 30th birthday, toils miserably in a cubicle as a government worker whose job is to help families devastated by 9/11. She’s married to a perfectly nice guy, Eric (Chris Messina, Away We Go), but that fact doesn’t seem to make her bubble over with joy. Dissatisfaction is the badge she wears. As we’ll see, it takes a while for Julie Powell to learn Julia Child’s motto, “Life itself is the proper binge.”
Julie Powell wants to be a writer but her novel remains, like everthing else she tries, unfinished. After work days filled with the heartbreak of others, she comes home and does the only thing that gives her comfort–she cooks. She knows that if she adds this ingredient to that ingredient and mixes it and heats it in a prescribed way and time–that there will be a known and delicious result. In a life of chaos, cooking brings her sacred predictability.
Jealous of her more successful friends, and encouraged by her loving husband (who happened to be an editor at my favorite magazine, Archaeology Today), Julie decides to do something that she is so passionate about, she will indeed finish it. And to prove that she is a writer–she will blog about it. Starting in 2002, every day she will cook from Julia Child’s classic tome, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and make precisely 524 recipes in 365 days. It’s a daunting task for anyone, much less someone who has a full-time job and doesn’t start cooking until she gets home late at night. Usually dinner is served near midnight–but oh, what wonderful late-night repasts.
As directed and written by Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle), a famous foodie herself, the film Julie & Julia intertwines the stories of these two women, who never met, but who learned about life and themselves through the magic of copper pots and the love of clear cooking instructions.
Meryl Streep, of course, brings Julia Child completely to life and all her scenes are delicious and way too short. The love that Julia and her husband feel for one another also makes Julie & Julia one of the most charming screen romances in ages, and one of the funniest. These two adults, despite the intervention of real life, simply adore one another. As Paul Child toasts his wife one Valentine’s Day dinner, “You are the butter to my bread. I love you.”
Amy Adams as Julie is not a younger version of Julia Child, even though she strives to achieve what she calls Julia’s “saintliness.” Julie Powell is driven, not by passion, but by the desire to achieve the impossible. She does it despite melt-downs and the near-wreckage of her marriage. She’s a heroine because of sheer determination, not necessarily a joy of cooking.
At first no one reads her blog that details her activities and thoughts of her daily cooking experiments. But word quickly spreads and soon Julie’s blog is exploding with comments. With visions of Julia Child as her guardian angel looking over her shoulder, Julie Powell writes her blog in the free-style of a young hipster–bold, irreverent, brutally honest, occasionally sprinkled with four-letter words that her Texas mother, and certainly a woman of Julia Child’s age, might not appreciate. But Julie is speaking from her heart, even if it is tempered with frustration and emotional tumult, and her words eventually reach and touch thousands of people every day.
One day Julie wakes up and realizes she’s become famous. Reporters are calling to interview her. Agents want to represent her. She’s a star in the frantic early days of blogging. The blog gets her a book deal (now renamed: Julie and Julia, My Year of Cooking Dangerously) and then unbelievable–Hollywood comes calling, too! (It wasn’t all peachy keen as her second book, Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession out later this year, will attest). Alas, her famous blog didn’t make her idol Julia Child like her, and that note of bittersweetness is a dollop of reality that takes the movie out of the saccharine fairy tale realm and gives it a welcome bite.
I adored this movie and so did my husband and everybody else in the audience. We laughed, we cried, we salivated. Be sure you see Julie & Julia on a full stomach. By the time the movie was over, 123 minutes of it, I thought I could devour a horse. I had to force myself to remember Julia Child’s advice on life: “Moderation. Small helpings. Sample a little bit of everything. These are the secrets of happiness and good health.”