Here's something I never thought I'd write: Nora Ephron has made one of the best movies of the year.
I admit that going into Julie & Julia I was braced for another sappy, sit-commy chick flick with a few good lines, some showy performances, and a bogus feminist agenda along the lines of, say, Heartburn. But instead of giving us gas and acid reflux, Ephron has whipped up a sly, subtle, piquant confection that not only brings to life two fascinating women (or maybe one fascinating and one ingratiating) but also explores the differences between two eras, two ways of challenging conformity, and two narrative voices telling the story of their lives.
It's kind of like The Hours with food and no suicides. In 2002, Julie Powell (Amy Adams), an aspiring blogger newly ensconced in a dismal Queens apartment with her long-suffering husband Eric (Chris Messina), is at a loss as to how to proceed. A whiner and a narcissist, she at least recognizes the need to go beyond solipsism. So she decides to set herself the challenge of cooking 524 recipes from Mastering the Art of FrenchCooking by Julia Child — her hero and role model — in 365 days.
Julie & Julia | Directed by Nora Ephron | Written by Nora Ephron, based on the books by Julie Powell and Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme | Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Stanley Tucci, Chris Messina, Linda Emond, Mary Lynn Rajskub, and Jane Lynch | Columbia Pictures | 123 Minutes
Meanwhile, back in 1949, Julia Child (Meryl Streep) is moving into a Paris apartment ("it's Versailles!") with her long-suffering husband Paul (Stanley Tucci, Tracy to Streep's Hepburn — or is it the other way around?), who's been posted there as a cultural liaison for the now-defunct United States Information Agency. Lacking the advantage of the Internet or 60 years of progress in women's rights, Julia decides to make the most of the conventional woman's place in the kitchen. She takes a course at Le Cordon Bleu, and the rest is history.
Streep transcends parody with her portrayal. The true test of her performance is that it survives comparison with Dan Aykroyd's classic shtick on SNL, a snippet of which Ephron bravely shows. For her part, Adams (who starred with Streep in last year's Doubt, for which both actresses got Oscar nominations) painfully and endearingly conveys her character's progression from self-centered miserabilist to someone worthy not just of her mentor's cuisine but of Julia's, uh, Child-like generosity of spirit.
Rather than mechanically parallel the two lives, Ephron engages them in a kind of dialogue, with Powell's efforts at mastering Child's recipes and her joie de vivre underscoring her own shortcomings in both areas. Each character (and on occasion Paul) provides commentary on these episodes, drawing from postings and letters. It's a dicy move — the voiceover narrative has proved the downfall of the best filmmakers. But Ephron has mastered this tricky device, not only adapting it with exhilarating effect to the story but also using it to explore the concept of the narrative voice itself.
In Julie & Julia the images don't duplicate the words — they supplement and subvert, with wit and irony. After a montage of a hard morning at cooking school, Julia relates cheerily how she went home and made lunch for Paul, who then "took a nap." The screen, however, shows them engaging in behavior one does not usually associate with the French Chef. Not only do this and other such moments make for funny sight gags, they also point out Child's basic lessons: both cooking and style depend as much on what's omitted as what's used, and creativity requires making the most of the ingredients you have and not bemoaning those you don't.