Screenwriters: Nora Ephron
Starring: Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Stanley Tucci, Chris Messina, Linda Emond
Running time: 123 mins
Take Britain's first celebrity chef, Fanny Cradock, extract the bitter juices and add a dash of methamphetamine. That perhaps best describes Julia Child, who became a household name in America in the '60s after compiling a groundbreaking French cookery book and, subsequently, fronting a television series. Meryl Streep is utterly magnifique in the story of her life, which parallels the travails of modern-day writer Julie Powell (the versatile Amy Adams) who channels her frustrations into cooking all of Child's 524 recipes and recording the results in a daily blog. In turn, that diary would become the book which inspired this delightfully wacky film by Nora Ephron.
Julie, like any number of rom-com heroines, is a kooky, idealistic, angst-ridden New Yorker. It's an easy fit for Adams, who plays it as earnest as Junebug but with a brain; dreaming of literary stardom while stuck in a dead-end job and fast approaching her 30th birthday. Fortunately she has a supportive husband, Eric (Chris Messina), who encourages her madcap ideas, including The Julie & Julia Project. It's a huge commitment that means cooking 524 recipes in 365 days (after work) to make fodder for the blog, and there's plenty of spilt milk to cry over. Of course Ephron heaps in a good amount of laughs as well, but the most compelling part of the story unfolds in the late '50s when Julia Child is faced with her own identity crisis.
Julia struggles to keep herself busy after relocating to France with her diplomat husband Paul (the effortlessly charming Stanley Tucci). Fortunately, she is the type who, given lemons, will make lemonade - except, of course, that she has a more sophisticated culinary sense. She falls in love with French cuisine and decides that she could even make a living out it. Streep exudes that passion in bucketfuls (like an opera dame with the warbling voice to boot). One of the funniest, most eloquent scenes finds her chopping a mountain of onions at lightening speed and bringing Paul to tears. That aside, it's a blissful marriage, especially when compared with the increasingly strained relationship between Julie and Eric. The novelty of The Project soon wears off for both, but Julie is adamant that she must finish what she started.
Although Julia Child is equally intent on writing her book, she somehow manages to find a healthier balance between her professional and personal life. Yes, Ephron has lessons to impart to the modern working woman, especially those who worship at the feet of 'domestic goddess' Nigella Lawson. It's easy to see why Julie was so inspired by Child as she can happily splat a pancake on the floor without lapsing into a deep existential crisis about it. That makes for an intriguing contrast of life experiences, which, as this clever script demonstrates, has much to do with time and place. The Childs are too busy dealing with outward pressures to be gazing at their navels; the spectre of a World War still hangs over France and the Childs even find themselves in the firing line of the anticommunist witch-hunts.
Still, Ephron is careful not to let the drama get too heavy, taking a leaf out of Julia's book and greeting every crisis with a smile and a platter of scrumptious goodies. Two hours zip by thanks to the fizzing chemistry between Streep and Tucci, which is as warming as it is fun. The contemporary strand feels more like the conventional 'chick flick' that Ephron is known for, but in a sense that's what makes the contrast of lives so effective. On the surface, Child's image is very much of the fusty '50s housewife and yet further exploration of her life (Ephron referenced her memoirs as well as Powell's book) reveals a much more avant-garde character. If anything, Ephron could be accused of taking too light an approach, but this film certainly has the substance to match her previous hits, Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry Met Sally (which she co-wrote). Think of it like a good soufflé: deliciously sweet and airy without the cloying aftertaste. You'll want more.
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