Review: Streep makes ‘Julia’ worthwhile

Meryl Streep remains a wonder.

With her voice riding precariously up and down the scales like a tipsy soloist, Streep brings aplomb and gusto to her sympathetic comic take on the august mother hen of TV cooks, Julia Child, in the new “Julie & Julia.” The performance goes well beyond caricature in its expressivity and exhilarating idiosyncrasy. It’s another feather — an ostrich plume — in the actress’s bountiful cap. It’s too bad that “Julie & Julia,” which alternates the stories of Child’s rise with the attempt by blogger Julie Powell to cook the 524 recipes in Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” doesn’t always live up to Streep’s work — though Nora Ephron’s film is sometimes a tasty dish. Child was a far cry from today’s iron chefs, with their telegenic hair and international landmark restaurants. She was a middle-aged housewife who learned to cook in Paris, France, when her husband was posted to the U.S. Embassy there shortly after World War II. Le Cordon Bleu was more stimulating than hat-making classes, and she relished wiping the condescension off the faces of her fellow students — all training to go professional, and all of them men. “Servantless” (in her own construction) and happily fearless, Child cooked because she loved food, and because she didn’t know what else to do with her time. In the early 1960s, there were plenty of women who could relate to that, and her book, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” became a dinner-party bible.

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Cut to 2002, and Powell (Amy Adams) is another foodie with a malnourished sense of fulfillment. She’s happily married, but endures her daily commute from Queens to a depressing government job without enthusiasm, and she can’t compete with her sickeningly successful college friends. Casting about for a mission, she decides to devote a year to cooking the recipes in Child’s magnum opus, and writing about it. “Julie & Julia” doesn’t generate much in the way of story or suspense — unless it’s to wonder if their respective books will ever be written — and the film simmers without threatening to come to a boil. If you’re making a stew, that’s a good thing; with a movie, it’s more of a mixed blessing. Despite the obvious parallels and contrasts, Ephron doesn’t feel the need to beat up on the 1950s from a supposedly superior modern perspective. If anything, the movie suggests nostalgia for a more self-possessed femininity. Julia is forthright, vigorous and spirited; Julie is self-effacing, anxious and overworked. If you saw these two actresses in “Doubt,” you will appreciate the typecasting, and maybe wonder if Streep shouldn’t seek out stiffer competition. They never appear together here, but even if the twin strands get roughly equal screen time, it’s glaringly obvious who is the main dish and who is the soufflé. It’s scarcely Adams’ fault: Julia wrote the recipes, Julie just cooked them. Food lovers will find the movie passably invested in preparation and presentation — how to chop an onion, kill a lobster, stuff a chicken — and Ephron, who also wrote the script, does betray a sweet tooth for chocolate desserts. But if the casting of Stanley Tucci as Julia’s loving husband Paul is by way of tribute to the great food film he made with Campbell Scott, “Big Night,” the comparison isn’t flattering. There is nothing to match the patience and precision Tucci, as Secondo, brought to making an omelet at the end of that picture. Great cooking takes dedication. Ephron clearly knows this, but her movie pays lip service to the idea without body or texture. Even so, given her drippy and dumbed-down track record over the last decade (“Bewitched,” “Hanging Up,” “Michael”) the movie’s conservative flavors and occasional piquancy can still be counted a pleasant surprise. Moreover, many moviegoers will relish a more mature and seasoned alternative to the summer’s diet of eye candy.

In that respect, call “Julie & Julia” — if not a great meal — good comfort food. “Julie & Julia” is rated PG-13 and runs 122 minutes. For Entertainment Weekly’s review, click here.