There’s nothing particularly mind-bending about Julie & Julia (2009; dir. Nora Ephron). It’s simply an entertaining and intelligent diversion. Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Julia Childs is so convincing that for most of the film she seems to be channeling Childs--I lost track of the fact that this was Meryl Streep I was watching, not Julia Childs. The film parallels the lives of Julia Childs and a young woman in New York City who decides to try to cook all the recipes on Child’s famous Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The idea of paralleling these stories might seem contrived and artificial, but it works. In the course of the film, we learn a bit about American history from the 1940s to 2001, spanning the period from the end of the Second World War, the McCarthy hearings, to the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks in New York City.
The film is written and directed by Nora Ephron. It is lightly humorous and rarely moves into melodrama. We learn how Childs’ unhappiness over not having a career, following the end of her service in the OSS in WWII, leads her to try a number of different occupations, including hat making. But she finally settles on French cooking, and her life takes off. The only real point of unhappiness in her life is her failure to have children, but the film does not emphasize this. Much gentle fun is made of Childs’ height and her burbly and typically unflappable personality. Amy Adams is effective as Julie Powell, the young New York woman who after a promising college career as a writer has come to nothing, while her friends are highly successful in their lives. She starts a blog about her efforts to cook her way through the Childs cookbook, and gradually it attracts attention and followers. After a New York Times article about her project she is besieged by book agents and publishers who want her to write a book.
The parallel lives of Adams and Childs, two women trying to find a path in their lives, never cross. In the present time of the film, Childs is already 90, and when a newspaper interviewer asks what she thinks of the blog devoted to her cookbook, she responds that it shows a lack of respect. At first Powell is discouraged by the remark, but her husband convinces her that the Julia Childs she admires and loves is the woman of the cookbook, the woman she has envisioned in her mind.
I was impressed by how Julie & Julia does not insist on the importance of its subject. It relies on empathy. By allowing Streep and Adams to portray characters who are at the core likeable and recognizably human, it draws us in. Streep’s acting in this film, a tribute to the life and career of Julie Childs, is truly remarkable.