There are, of course, two Julias in Nora Ephron's new movie Julie & Julia. One is short and petite, the other extraordinarily tall and pleasantly beamy. One loves to cook, while the other lived to cook. Both are based on real people. One, Julie Powell (Amy Adams), had a bright idea, while the other, Julia Child (Meryl Streep), had a calling. Julie is a bit of a pill, while Julia, as played by Streep, is irresistible, the personification of movie magic.
But perhaps what most distinguishes these two heroines from each other is their expectations about life, love and occupation. At 29, Queens, N.Y., resident and office drone Julie is consumed with jealousy of her friends. It's not their careers she wants they mostly wheel and deal in the business world; it's their sense of importance about themselves and the world's acknowledgment of such. Julie is depressingly desperate for the payoffs of the contemporary age. At Amherst College she edited the literary magazine. She wrote half a novel. She is owed. You can see her thinking that her mother, who lives in Texas but calls in regularly, is just stupid for not seeing the righteousness of her need.
Ephron's movie is based on the book of the same name, Powell's account of the year she spent cooking her way through Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking and blogging about her experiences. By turns amusing, profane and whiny, Julie & Julia was a best seller. It did not include a blurb from Child, who reportedly found Powell's project disrespectful and unserious. Thankfully, in writing her screenplay, Ephron drew on a second source, Child's memoir My Life in France (published after Child's death in 2004 and written with Alex Prud'homme). The Child who is only imagined in Powell's book as a sort of kitchen goddess-dictator is realized here as a real person, living her own parallel narrative arc of self-discovery.
It's a far less needy, greedy path, fueled more by appetite than hunger. We're introduced to Child as newly arrived in Paris in 1948 with her husband Paul (Stanley Tucci), a diplomat she met and fell in love with in her mid-30s. They are a marvelously believable pair of soul mates; Tucci makes the transition from playing Streep's gay minion in The Devil Wears Prada to playing her lusty spouse look effortless. Ensconced in a beautiful apartment, Julia and Paul eat, make love and eat some more. "French people eat French food every single day!" Julia enthuses. "I can't get over it." Their only disappointment is that they can't have children, a sadness Ephron conveys in a few deft strokes, almost purely visual as when Julia slumps against Paul upon the news that her sister Dorothy (the perfectly cast Jane Lynch) is expecting.
What is solvable is the matter of Julia's boredom. Paul and she can't spend every waking minute together in a bistro, sharing divine sole meunière. "What should I do?" she asks him, just one of many moments when Streep's channeling of Child's speech patterns caused me to yelp with pleasure. She ends up at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school and discovers, triumphantly, that she has talent for it. She's also very pleased to defy the expectations of the Cordon Bleu's snooty director (Joan Juliet Buck), who didn't believe an American housewife stood a chance in this mostly male arena. Soon Julia and two of her new French friends are toiling away on the cookbook that will transport these gastronomical joys across the Atlantic, touching and transforming many American lives, including that of Julie who, it must be said, seems to have had an easier time getting published than Julia did.