"Julie & Julia" does it right. A consummate entertainment that echoes the rhythms and attitudes of classic Hollywood, it's a satisfying throwback to those old-fashioned movie fantasies where impossible dreams do come true. And, in this case, it really happened. Twice.
Starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams and written and directed, in her most accomplished work to date, by Nora Ephron, this film adroitly combines two separate stories told by two different books (the characters never meet) that are linked not only by subject but also by theme.
The first is Julia Child's, "My Life in France," a memoir by the celebrated cook, teacher and writer whose "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" and accompanying "The French Chef" television show radically changed the American culinary landscape.
The second memoir, "Julie & Julia," follows writer Julie Powell as she works her way through a self-imposed quest: cooking all 524 recipes in Child's book, all specifically formulated for "the servantless American cook," in the space of one 365-day year.
These two books are linked not only by Powell's decision, or even by the authors' shared zeal for butter, but also by a similarity in personality and situation. Both women are unstoppable forces searching for something worth their involvement, and both find that cooking completes them, makes them feel alive in ways wonderful and unforeseen.
It's also worth noting that these two stories are tales, so to speak, of sisters doing it for themselves. Though both women have loyal and encouraging husbands (played by fine actors Stanley Tucci and Chris Messina) who are crucial to their success, this is the rare Hollywood film where it's the men who are the support team, not the women.
"Julie & Julia" is very much a female coming to power story, which is one of several reasons why the producers were fortunate to get Ephron to write and direct.
Herself a passionate cook who told The Times' John Horn, "I felt my entire life had prepared me to write this screenplay -- my obsession with food," Ephron shares with her protagonists a deep appreciation for the pleasures of the stove. Though "Julie & Julia" is a film about love and accomplishment as well as cooking, it's especially animated by a genuine enjoyment of food as one of life's warmest and most pleasing satisfactions.
As felicitous as the choice of Ephron was her decision to cast Streep in the Julia Child role. No one needs to be told at this late date how formidably accomplished an actress Streep is, but she outdoes herself here in a comic-dramatic role that is not only enormously funny but also trickier than it may seem at first.
That's because with her inimitable voice and unmistakable mannerisms, Child was simultaneously a real person and a kind of caricature, a personality so extreme it's initially hard to separate the clip we see of Dan Aykroyd's "Saturday Night Live" impersonation from the real thing.
Streep makes crossing this chasm look simple, easily conveying Child's phenomenal energy and relishing the contradictions of the character the way Julia herself relishes a particularly delicious sole meuniere. This is a performance to cherish and enjoy.
Though the film's Julie Powell sequences were shot first, "Julie & Julia" opens with Julia Child arriving in France in 1948, not knowing the language or a thing about the cuisine. But to say she's an enthusiast is not to say the half of it, and not content to be merely the wife of U.S. Embassy cultural attache Paul Child (Tucci), Julia searches for something to be enthusiastic about.
After a failed foray into hats and the realization that eating is one of the things she does best, Child enrolls in the Cordon Bleu cooking school run by the disagreeable Madame Brassart (former French Vogue editor Joan Juliet Buck). Being thrust into a class of professional men rouses her competitive spirit -- a sight gag involving chopped onions is priceless -- and thus begins the adventure leading to a chance meeting with Simone Beck (Linda Emond) and the years-long process resulting in the first modern English language guide to French cooking.
Meanwhile, in a universe far, far away and 50 years in the future, we meet a woman facing a different set of challenges. The year is 2002 and Julie Powell (Adams) is a once-promising young writer who now sits in a cubicle at the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. fielding phone calls from malcontents.
Frustrated by her job and her power broker friends and encouraged by husband Eric (Messina), Julie comes up with the idea of tackling Childs' recipes in her small Queens kitchen and recording her progress in the then-new arena of blogging. Like her role model, she faces down obstacles and perseveres to the happy ending we feel she deserves.
Though a bit overshadowed by Streep (who isn't?), the gifted Adams is essential in making this two-part story work. Playing a character that is more ordinary than the actress' past efforts (think the princess in "Enchanted") but still a tad eccentric, Adams turns Julie into someone we always care about no matter what shenanigans she is going through.
To both create and effortlessly intercut this pair of stories required a high level of craft, starting with Ephron's unflappable writing and directing and Richard Marks' smooth editing, which makes the film's back and forth structure seem inevitable. Ann Roth's costumes and Mark Ricker's production design are just what they should be.
And cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt gives Queens its due while giving Paris the rosy glow of re-created fantasy -- and making the less imposing Streep seem as tall as the 6-foot-2 Child.
In a film where food is so central, a special word of thanks needs to go to culinary consultant-food stylist Susan Spungen and executive chef Colin Flynn. They made sure, in Ephron's words, that "the food in the movie looked like a normal person made it." Fantasies have to lightly touch on the real to be truly effective, and no film of the moment understands that connection better than "Julie & Julia."
'Julie & Julia'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for brief strong language and some sensuality
Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes
Playing: In general release