"Never apologize. No excuses," Julia Child counsels in Julie & Julia, and writer-director Nora Ephron has taken it to heart. This sentimental journey "based on two true stories" (the Julie Powell book and Child's My Life in France, co-written by Alex Prud'homme) needn't apologize. If it's a bit lightweight, it's also fairly adorable, a motivational seminar only interested in selling love of life, food, and a loyal partner.
Julie & Julie begins in 1949 France and 2002 Queens. New Yorker Julie Powell (Streep's Doubt co-star Amy Adams) works the disspiriting phones at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, post 9/11, while her upwardly mobile "friends" gaggle on a different frequency about their accomplishments and pursuits. Determined to finish something for once in her life, Julie decides that if anyone can write a blog, she can too. Headlining the blog "The Julie/Julia Project: Nobody here but us servantless American cooks," Powell commits herself to a timed test of working her way through Julia Child's 1961 cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The original subtitle of Powell's eventual memoir sums it up: "365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen." Naturally, the going gets tough.
But as Julie's agreeable husband Eric (Chris Messina) points out, "Julia Child wasn't always Julia Child." In fact, if one follows the movie's conventional wisdom, she was a lot like Julie Powell: both were secretaries for a government agency (Julia for the OSS during WWII), both have dramatic personalities, and both have supportive husbands. Julia's husband Paul (Streep's The Devil Wears Prada co-star Stanley Tucci) wholeheartedly backs her foray into cooking, which finds her hopping over The Joy of Cooking, skipping excitedly through the Cordon Bleu, and jumping into the world of publishing and, eventually, television.
Julia is played, of course, by Meryl Streep, who—with Ephron's help—captures Child's drive and effervescent personality. The performance may be a tad more technical than soulful at times, but you try talking like Child and being 100% "real." Even as extraordinary women go, Child was famously unreal. And as Streep plays her (or nails her), it's impossible to look away (plus, her double act with a gently funny Tucci will warm the cockles of your heart). As Child plugs away at chopping onions and writing seven hundred pages on sauces and poultry, Powell eats her first egg, wrangles a lobster ("Oh, Julia, you make it sound so easy"), and asks, "Is there anything better than butter?" Perhaps antacid: both women have crises of faith over stomach upset and thickening midsections, petty concerns when gaining comfort from the certainties of a tasty meal made to order.
Any way you slice or dice it, Child’s story is considerably more interesting than Powell's, whose antics in the present day are much more predictable. Powell's stress-fueled meltdowns pale compared to the spectre of Joseph McCarthy in Child's time; in passing, Ephron also diagnoses Julia's career as being, at least partly, a sublimation of her frustrated childlessness. Though more conventional, the Powell plot isn't meaningless—it represents the pride found in a meal well cooked while honestly acknowledging Powell’s not-entirely-unhealthy narcicissm and career ambition. And Ephron has another fish to fry: the big picture turns out to be a bittersweet celebration of the imaginary relationship between an artist and a fan, whose contact with her hero turns out to be anti-climactic but powerless to diminish the duo's metaphysical love story. Together the film's parallel stories do make slightly more than the sum of their ingredients, cooking up undemanding summer fun.