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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"JULIE & JULIA"


Meryl Streep masterfully channels Julia Child in one of the year's best performances.
 
Julie & Julia promotes itself as being "based on two true stories." One of the stories is substantially more interesting than the other, yet they are combined well by writer/director Nora Ephron. This is not to say that the less interesting story has no merit; it's just that the subjects are beloved cook Julia Child and Julie Powell, an ardent admirer of Child's who started her own blog. In other words, a fascinating legend and a person of mild curiosity at best. This theoretically shouldn't work. The problem with "back-and-forth" movies like this is that every time you start to get really involved in one story, the film switches abruptly to the other. And who wants to switch away from the story about the legend? If Child's section works because of her incredible life and the amazing performance from the actress who plays her, Powell's story works largely just because of the acting.

Amy Adams (who can generally do no wrong in my book) plays Powell, a dissatisfied office drone, dealing with insurance issues related to September 11. Feeling a big gap in her life, she decides that cooking would be a good outlet and therefore decides to spend a year documenting her attempt to cook all 524 recipes in Julia Child's famous Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Her husband Eric (Chris Messina) sets up the blog for her, eats her food, and eventually becomes impatient with her fixation. Nevertheless, Julie finds self-fulfillment in cooking, which translates to lots of attention to her writing.

Interspersed with her story is that of Child (Meryl Streep) herself. A government secretary who moves to Paris when her husband Paul (Stanley Tucci) is transferred to the American embassy there, Julia is left with nothing to do. She tries a few things, including hat making, only to find them dull. Then she signs up for a French cooking class, in which she is the only female. Driven by a passion but also a need to prove herself, she quickly becomes very good in the kitchen. This leads to an offer to work on a cookbook that shows American women how to successfully replicate French cooking. The creation of the book takes years and meets with many roadblocks, yet Julia never gives up. We all know how that one turned out.

When I first heard that Meryl Streep was going to be playing Julia Child, I thought it seemed very unlikely. Of course, I should totally know better than to count Streep out. This role is proof that she can play anything. The actress doesn't just do an impersonation - a vintage "Saturday Night Live" clip features Dan Aykroyd brilliantly doing that - but rather embodies the spirit of Child. In this movie, she's a determined, unstoppable force of nature who rebelliously thumbs her nose at anyone who dares to tell her that she's not qualified. It is this fierce determination, coupled with a refusal to take herself too seriously, that was undoubtedly a key element of Julia Child's appeal.

For this reason, Child's half of the picture is utterly fascinating. The woman faced sexism in her avocation, but also had to deal with unrealistic expectations from would-be publishers and even McCarthyism. (The famous senator did not like the fact that Julia and Paul lived/worked in China for a while.) I didn't really know much about her background prior to seeing this film, so her tale really caught my attention. The material is so good, in fact, that a solo Julia Child biopic could easily have been made, especially considering that Julie & Julia ends just as her fame is really beginning.


Amy Adams works her way through a cookbook in Julie & Julia.
 
The Julie Powell story is entertaining, although not as fully engrossing. It has more of a traditional cutesy "chick flick" kind of vibe. I liked how the picture shows her website going from obscurity to being noticed by readers (I can relate); however, the Julie we see here tends to be pretty single-minded as she works her way through the cookbook, pushing most other things in life aside. Whereas we see many aspects to Julia Child, we see only one for Powell: obsessiveness. Thank goodness, then, that she's played by Amy Adams. In the hands of someone else, the character could have been really annoying. Adams avoids this, with her genuine likeability and winning charm. She makes us care about Julie more than we would otherwise.

All in all, Julie & Julia is a pretty satisfying experience in spite of those few minor flaws. Both lead actresses are great fun to watch, and Streep could well earn yet another Oscar nomination. There is also something to be said for the way the film honors ambitious women. This summer, we've seen a number of pictures that were actually kind of degrading to women (you heard me, The Awful Truth!), so a celebration of women who overcome odds and find personal success is welcomed. Julie Powell feels connected to Julia Child. Not only do their stories parallel, but they also share a similar spirit. In the creation of fine food, they both discover an essential part of themselves. Julie & Julia may even inspire others to find their own passions.

( out of four)


Julie & Julia is rated PG-13 for brief strong language and some sensuality. The running time is 2 hours and 3 minutes.

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