I still remember the very first” meal” that I ever cooked for someone. It was in my first apartment and for my favorite former Marine – hot dogs boiled in water and green beans with almond silvers. (Strange, I know, but one doesn’t argue with the taste buds of a Marine.) Not the greatest culinary master except when under the tutelage of my grandmother cooking or baking, I burned the hot dogs – and I mean burned. An event warranting a reminder over 30 years later, you can imagine my horror, and his, at my then lack of skill in the kitchen. Thank heavens for Julia Child as that very week I trotted to the local bookstore and bought myself a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. What impressed me most about the cookbook was Child’s use of butter. Having spent my life eating my grandmother’s butter laden German cooking, how could any chef or cookbook not be good when espousing the beauty of butter. It didn’t take long before I was soon able to debone a fish, make perfect whipped cream, bake a chicken, and plow my way through the recipes for a myriad of other tasty delights. So when Julie Powell embarked on her Julie & Julia project (cooking all 524 recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 365 days) some years back, needless to say, my curiosity was piqued. In a manner of speaking, Julia Child had helped saved my life – at least from total embarrassment in the kitchen – and Child was now saving Powell from the horrors of turning 30, all with the help of 524 recipes.
Fast forward to 2009. Enter uber-scribe and director, Nora Ephron. Calling on two best selling memoirs, My Life in France by Child and Julie & Julia by Powell, Ephron whips together one of the tastiest treats to satiate the hunger of any filmgoer, melding time and space through food, cooking, creativity, food, marriage, life and food (did I say food?) with the charming JULIE & JULIA; a perfect recipe for comedic delight with the lightness and texture of the sweetest souffle.
The time is 1948. Former government worker Julia Child is now just Julia Child, housewife. Together with her beloved husband Paul, still a government employee, the two are located to Paris, France, a town which Child embraces with all of her heart; at least the part that doesn’t belong to Paul. A tall, gangly, outspoken, active woman hailing from Pasadena, California, Child wasn’t used to just being a homemaker, especially in Paris. And unfortunately, Julia and Paul are unable to have children, a fact which forever pains Julia. But, with Paul’s unending love and encouragement, Julia embarks into the world searching for a passion to call her own. As much as she likes hats, millinery isn’t her cup of tea. Same for bridge. But food. Ahhh. Food. From her first bite of a fish glistening with the liquid golden haze of rich creamy butter, Child knows that she loves French food. So what better thing to do than muscle your way into the all male Cordon Bleu cooking school. Attacking cooking with the same enthusiasm she has for life, Child is unstoppable, soon surpassing all the men with her skills and very quickly befriending two other Parisian female chefs, Simone Beck and Louise Bertholle. Realizing Child’s culinary skills, and the fact that she can read and write English, Beck and Bertholle entice Child to join them in a cookbook project – a project that eventually gives us Mastering the Art of French Cooking; a project that changes Julia’s life.
The time is 2002. Julie Powell is turning 30 in a post-911 world in Queens, New York. Slaving away at a frustrating job in a tiny little cubicle, she is dejected and downtrodden from the word go. On leaving work, she comes home to her cat and her loving husband Eric and their 900 square foot two room apartment, where she is equally as frustrated and confused about life. But, there is one thing that Julie loves – food, and cooking. Her fondest memory of food – a dinner with boeuf bourguignonne made by her mother to impress a guest. And of course, it was Julia Child’s recipe. Inspired by Eric, Julie begins what she believes is her salvation – the Julie/Julia Project – a blog that will chronicle her efforts to, within 365 days, cook all 524 recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking; a project that changes Julie’s life.
Is there any character that Meryl Streep can’t play? Any role she can’t bring life to – even when portraying a larger than life character like Julia Child? The answer is “no.” Immersing herself into Julia Child, Streep is chameleonic, transforming her mannerisms, dialect, posture, stance, accent, verbal inflection, into not a mimicry or caricature of Julia Child, but an embodiment of her. She is so powerful in her performance that one forgets that this is not the real Julia Child on screen. Streep is transcendent. Her performance is rich with the buttery golden patina of Oscar. But beyond the strength of the persona she embodies, Streep brings us finely textured layers of emotion and passion, especially in Child’s relationship with her husband Paul. Her work here is beauteous to behold, unfolding before us like the perfect peaks on a delicate meringue.
Amy Adams is the perfect ingredient to this film’s recipe; a lovely blend of sweetness and determination with just a pinch of spice. As Julie Powell, she has a vivacity and naivete that is charming. Unfortunately, Adams also goes a bit over the top with some of the character’s “meltdowns” and is too over-the-top with melodrama in a film such as this; a little too well done like my infamous hot dogs. Nevertheless, her perkiness and spunk sparkle like a shimmering cake frosting.
Adding to that buttery golden boy for Streep, I expect to see a Best Supporting Actor nod come the way of Stanley Tucci. As Paul Child, he is the backbone of Streep’s robust performance. I loved Tucci and Streep together in “Devil Wears Prada” but here…..magnificent. Strong and confident, as Paul, Tucci is period perfect. Nattily dressed. Impeccable manners. A clean, crispness not found in men today. But it is the love that he exudes for Streep’s Child that warms the heart. To paraphrase Paul’s own words to Julia, Tucci is the butter to the bread of this film.
Chris Messina is more of a side dish souffle than a main course as Eric Powell. A performance that relies heavily on that of Adams, Messina at times seems lost and out of place, like a souffle that has fallen flat. His emotional interplay with Adams seems forced and lacking seasoning.
A couple of performances not miss are the appetizing works of two of my faves, Mary Lynn Rajskub as Julie’s best friend Sarah, and Vanessa Ferlito as Julie’s uppity mega-million deal making friend, Cassie. Ferlito is icy goodness.
Written and directed by Nora Ephron, JULIE & JULIA has all the elements of “Sleepless in Seattle”, “When Harry Met Sally”, “You’ve Got Mail.” Delightful! I expected to see Meg Ryan coming popping in at any moment. A daunting task, Ephron has seamlessly melded the two novels of Child and Powell into one perfectly balanced film, delicately adding elements of both eras and finding the common ground that ties them together. Not to say there aren’t a few spills along the way. Some of the scenes between Adams and Messina are forced, lacking spice or explanation and not quite fitting the storyline. Their relationship has quite a few unanswered questions. Clearly, Ephron is drawing parallels between the lives of the Childs and the Powells, but falls short with the character of Eric. I don’t know if it’s Messina’s performance or the writing, but he doesn’t compare to the strength of Tucci or Tucci’s character, Paul. Between the two couples, both in life and in film, the Childs are the more loving, full-bodied and life-living soulmates.
What makes this recipe work, however, is Mark Ricker’s production design, Ann Roth’s costuming, and food design of Executive Chef Colin Flynn and culinary consultant Susan Spungen. Starting with Ricker, his designs are impeccable, and none moreso than the Childs’ Paris apartment. Working from two photographs of the Childs’ actual apartment (one of which is the famous one of Julia leaning out the window next to a sunroom), Ricker was able to create a luxurious Parisian apartment of the 40′s but gave it a warmth reflective of the couple, bringing us an engaging, inviting home. Julia’s kitchen – well that’s another story because thanks to numerous publicity photos taken by Paul Child years ago, Ricker “had a 360-degree view of the kitchen. It was just fantastic. We replicated it as much as we could – the tiles, the stove, the sink. Because everything was great.” A great undertaking was the construction of eleven different kitchen sets, all fo which had to be functional working kitchens for “the implementation of food.” As for the Powells’ New York apartment, Ricker visited the actual apartment when they had lived and was able to incorporate design elements of the original into the set. Key to the Powell apartment is its lived in look, a cramped space that while having all the requisite seating, tables, accouterments, etc., took advantage of any available table space for laying books, magazines, tossing clothes, etc.
It fell to Ann Roth to create the look of Julia Child. While Streep is nowhere near Child’s 6’2″ height, Roth needed to make her appear that way. Creating several pairs of shoes with extreme platform and height, Streep was fitted for clothes based on leg length with the shoes on. Waistlines were also adjusted or given an illusion with belts and adornments to further showcase Child’s towering form. Recreating Child’s actual tv look, required specially made shirts with darts and collars. Child it turns out was actually somewhat of a clothes horse and loved hats and ladylike clothes of the day as much as she liked tomboyish looks, thus necessitating stockings with seams, monograms, tailored suits, etc.
Chefs Flynn and Spungen are the real artisans in this film. Making celebrated recipes from Child’s cookbook, we are privy to foods not normally seen in restaurants today, Lobster Thermidor, perfectly roasted chicken, stuffed duck, homemade bruschetta with toast points, perfectly poached eggs. MOUTHWATERING. (A caveat – Do NOT go to this film hungry! Do NOT go grocery shopping afterwards.) But not only did they cook, they had to work with Streep and Adams, honing their kitchen skills. And folks, Streep is apparently one handy lady in the kitchen, learning a very key fact – “a sharp knife is everything.”
The icing on the cake comes from Director of Photography Stephen Goldblatt and Editor Richard Marks. Goldblatt’s work is simply exquisite when one looks at the lighting and lensing between the two eras and his utilization of light and color to convey each woman’s emotional roller coaster. Different, yet similar and compatible, and perfectly complimentary to the other. Overall there were a few slow filming sequences, but they serve well to allow the visual pallette to relish that which came before and savor the anticipation of what is yet to come. . . a seven course meal of movie magic. As for Marks, he moves between the two eras with the ease of Julia Child flipping an omelet.
JULIE & JULIA. C’est magnifique!! Bon Appetit!
Julia Child – Meryl Streep
Paul Child – Stanley Tucci
Julie Powell – Amy Adams
Eric Powell – Chris Messina
Written and directed by Nora Ephron.