Sunday, September 27, 2009

Julie & Julia

Julia Child is a cultural icon from a bygone era. She almost single-handedly brought French cooking to the American kitchen, and her cookbooks have remained popular ever since. The complicated French cooking techniques she explained in plain English in Mastering the Art of French Cooking were humanized by the high-pitched voice and slightly bumbling manner she exhibited in her television program, endearing her to several generations of aspiring cooks, and also to many who never proceeded beyond vinaigrette, onion soup, and haricot verte, with an occasional foray, perhaps, into the daunting realm of pot au feu or coq au vin. Child died in 2004, and her brief autobiography, My Life in France, appeared two yeras later.

By that time Julie & Julia, the memoir of a young woman who sustained a daily blog for a year as she worked her way through Child’s magnum opus, had become a best-seller. Author and screenwriter Nora Ephron has woven the two stories together into a cross-generational film of great charm and surprising emotional impact. The scene shifts back and forth from Paris in the sixties, where Child was living with her husband (an exhibits officer with the State Department) and trying to learn how to cook at the tender age of 50, to Queens in the aftermath of the Twin Towers disaster, where Julie Powell is trying to bring some order into her life as she approaches 30 by blogging ... about Julia Child's cookbook.

Meryl Streep, in the role of the giddy yet indefatigable Child, is a joy to watch. She whoops it up to the point of absurdity while her husband (in a fine performance by Stanley Tucci) tries affectionately to keep the lid on. Just when Streep's irrepressible cheeriness is beginning to grate, the scene shifts to the young Julie Powell and her husband in their walk-up apartment. As Julie, Amy Adams once again exhibits a girl-next-door freshness, with just enough weight to keep us interested.

Though the food itself is never far from center-stage, Julie and Julia is also rich in décor, especially of the Parisian variety, and of minor characters who make a strong impression. Aspects of the publishing world, the McCarthy witch-hunts, the instant fame made possible by the internet, and other cultural phenomena add interest, though the emotions associated with bringing meaning to life, one way or another, provide the passacaglia. In the end, Julie and Julia is less about food than about hero-worship. It's a low-key tale with an unusual plot, it's all very civilized and nearly everything in it works.

It makes you want to go home and cook up some Gigot ou Épaule de Pré-Salé Braisé—or at least open a bottle of Bordeaux Superior and add another entry to your blog.

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