Nora Ephron’s new film is just a trifle. A mere bon bon. An amuse bouche for baby boom nostalgics. But for providing the cinematic feast that is Meryl Streep playing Julia Child, Ephron deserves our unrestrained gratitude.
Streep is as joyous in her over-sized portrayal as the real Julia Child was in everything she did. Large, generous, and graced with a huge appetite for life’s sensory possibilities, the real Child was the savvy gastro-entrepreneuse who made “cuisine” a household word in post-war America. Streep, by all accounts our greatest living actress, not only retrieves the most Childesque mannerisms – the perpetually tossed head, the rolling eyes, the warbling chortle – she goes further. Not into an over-the-top impersonation. Dan Ackroyd already did that.
Mais non! Streep does something even better. She offers us Julia Child transfigured. Julia Child as we remember her, as the collective “we” created her — a robust, hulking, darling of a woman who brought joy, memorable recipes and most of all empowerment to several generations of hopeful gourmet cooks. Streep is blindingly accurate in portraying our cultural memory of this icon. Not Julia as she exactly was, but Julia exactly as we recall her.
This said, I still can’t for the life of me figure out why Ephron’s film is so slight, so well, nothing really. A few very pithy autobiographical anecdotes — Paris is richly re-created right down to the surly marketplace fishmongers, the taffeta shirtwaists, the little velvet hats. It was a time when people smoked, drank and ate with joyful abandon. And yes, it is painful to see how far we’ve descended into the regimentation of sensory pleasures since that time.
But a few details of Julia Child’s arduous efforts to cook, to teach and finally to get published the book that launched a thousand dinner parties – just aren’t enough to hang two hours on. Poor Amy Adams, a sweet-faced, lackluster little thing – pitched against the magnificent Streep. Adams plays the current-day foil, Julie Powell, who cooks her way through Child’s entire “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” in a year, blogging about each recipe as she goes. This pitifully unworthy subplot is interspersed wanly through the fabulous footage of Streep as Child reinventing the Parisian culinary establishment.
And another thing. Unaccountably, Julie (Adams) snaps continually at her foxy, long-suffering husband, played smartly by Chris Messina. Why should we care about this whiney, self-absorbed little urban chick? Ephron gives us no reasons – so what we have in Julie & Julia, is half a film.
Nonetheless, if you remember sitting in front of the television, roaring with delight as Julia Child dropped that leg of lamb on the floor – on live TV! – picked it up and brushed it off, chortling with aplomb that “it doesn’t matter – no one will ever know” – you will absolutely ADORE Meryl Streep’s bravura portrayal.