Two women, looking for a sense of purpose. Two lives, parallel in their pursuit of identity through cooking. More than 50 years separated the journeys of Julie Powell and Julia Child, but in Julie & Julia their stories of self-discovery — not to mention their sumptuous meals — are intertwined through fluid visual cues and seamless editing.
The film, which arrives on DVD this week, is partly based on a book by the real-life Powell, Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen. At 29, the New York transplant was working a desk job for the city government when she decided to try to cook all the recipes in Child’s landmark tome, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and blog about her experiences in the kitchen, and out. The film version takes Powell’s work and expertly mixes in the story of how Child found her own passion for food during her years living in post-War Paris.
What hinders Julie & Julia, however, is that its two stories are decidedly lopsided. From the moment the movie begins, Child’s (Meryl Streep) world is lighthearted, intelligent and as enticing as the smell of a patisserie on a side street in Paris. Julia and her diplomat husband Paul (Stanley Tucci) are deeply in love, and it’s immediately evident that they share a joie de vivre that the chef would later bring to culinarily starved American households. Streep and Tucci are brilliant as a pair, and entirely believable as intellectual and romantic partners. Life at the Powell household, meanwhile, is a more dour affair: The movie begins as a sour-faced Julie (Amy Adams) and her husband Eric (Chris Messina) move to a dingy apartment in Queens, which Julie instantly hates.
Julie tends to hate a lot of things, though, including her job and her gaggle of high-powered girlfriends who seem to be nothing but a vapid, surly bunch. Most of us could relate: Who hasn’t questioned the meaning of life, or feared eternal mediocrity? Yet, as she becomes consumed by mushroom reductions and boeuf bourguiguon (aka fancy beef stew, which this reviewer’s mother happens to cook to perfection), she also becomes more consumed with herself. Julie strives to become a better person, but her efforts are as stale as day-old baguettes. Faced with such heavy consumption — both gastronomic and narcissistic — one can’t blame her adorable husband for finally trading the foie gras en famille for some cold pizza, tout seul.
Meanwhile, back in Paris (and other European hotspots), Julia has her own set of hurdles, albeit slighter taller ones. It’s the McCarthy era, and her husband has some baddie bureaucrats on his case. Plus, getting published is an uphill battle. But Julia’s spirit and perseverance are not to be underestimated, and everything seems to get better with a dollop of butter and a glass of wine. (In the DVD extras, Streep jokes that it took her a year and half to lose to 15 pounds she gained for the role.)
Slightly unfair to the Julie story is the addition of the hilarious Jane Lynch to Julia’s story, as her sister Dorothy. “I almost feel sorry for [our father],” she says. “He wanted so much for us to stay in Pasadena, marry Republicans and breed like rabbits.” Lucky for us (Julie Powell especially), Julia took off to taste life’s more exotic offerings.