Film Review: Julie & Julia

This entertaining new comedy from Nora Ephron, about famed chef Julia Child and author Julie Powell, is a homage to every woman’s unique talent for reinvention.

Nora Eprhon’s new film, Julie & Julia, is about two women who discover their creative life through a rather conventional hobby: They start cooking. The movie is based on Julie Powell’s book of the same name and on Julia Child’s memoir My Life in France (co-authored with Alex Prud’homme)—stories that obviously resonate with the writer-director. Recipes figured prominently in Ephron’s breakout novel, Heartburn, published in 1983, and in the cinematic adaptation that followed in 1986, which she wrote and Mike Nichols directed. In the book and in the movie, Rachel, a pregnant food writer, finds comfort in her favorite recipes when she discovers her husband is cheating on her. The story is autobiographical: In 1980, Ephron, pregnant with their second child, learned that her husband Carl Bernstein was having an affair with their mutual friend, British politician Margaret Jay.

Meryl Streep, who played Rachel in Heartburn, portrays Child in Julie & Julia. The iconic chef was a Smith graduate who worked for the OSS, and did not find her true calling until her husband’s job landed them in Paris in 1949. Ten years went by before her famous cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, found a publisher. Julie Powell (Amy Adams), unable to sell her first novel, decided to tackle Child’s 524 recipes in 365 days; her blog about the project led to a book deal. Ephron skillfully shifts from Julia in 1950s Paris to Julie in present-day Queens, the first a middle-aged married woman whose brains and sensuality changed the way America cooked, and the second a resolute young wife whose undertaking inspired thousands of readers to rediscover Julia Child and French cooking.

The film follows the two protagonists through their travails—in Julie’s case, cooking while holding down a day job, and in Julia’s, the long road to completing the cookbook when Paul Child’s (Stanley Tucci) job led them to other European cities. Julia, a stickler for professionalism, also attended Le Cordon Bleu, the ultimate French culinary school. Not surprisingly, she encountered resentment—for being a woman and for not being French. Then, after nearly a decade of writing and testing recipes with her two French co-authors, Houghton Mifflin, who had originally accepted the cookbook, said they couldn’t publish it. Julie and her husband separated, briefly, over her cooking project, while Julia’s marriage flourished: Paul Child, an artist and poet, worked on Julia’s cookbook and later produced her TV show.

A wonderful score by Alexandre Desplat (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) adds gravitas to Ephron’s perfectly calibrated comedy. Production designer Mark Ricker’s excellent use of color highlights the contrast in the two women’s circumstances—Child’s surroundings were lush and Powell’s were modest—and cues the audience to the shifts in time and location. Like all of Ephron’s films, Julie & Julia has that unmistakable Hollywood sheen, in part because of cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt’s (Charlie Wilson’s War) classic framing and flawless lighting. Richard Marks brings it all together with an ingenious picture edit that includes many clever ellipses in the transitions from Paris to Queens. The talent of Oscar-winning costume designer Ann Roth, who was Ephron’s collaborator on Heartburn, is especially evident in the clothes that so imaginatively define Julia and her French co-authors.

Ephron’s character-driven narratives rely on good acting, and Streep is luminous. Especially memorable are the scenes set in the kitchens of Le Cordon Bleu, from which Child graduated—although not before twice failing her final exams. Tucci is equally good as Paul Child: It’s a role that is perfectly suited to the actor’s natural warmth and intelligence. The couple’s letters home, heard in voice-over, provide a touching foundation to Ephron’s portrayal of Child. Adams, who played opposite Streep in Doubt, where she earned her second Oscar nomination, is very good as Julie, although the real Julie, a sassy Texan, remarked on her blog how odd it was to see such a cleaned-up version of herself. Chris Messina (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), in a thankless role as Julie’s husband, is the only lead to turn in a bland performance.

Ephron’s gift for endearing female characters lies in her portrayal of women as uniquely creative individuals: They emerge transformed after the shock of infidelity as Rachel does in Heartburn; they embrace unexpected love affairs like the protagonists of Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail; and when they’re on the verge of relinquishing their identity, like Isabel in Bewitched, they instead discover a new way to inhabit it. In Julie & Julia, that talent for reinvention is made apparent in women who are at very different phases of their lives: Julie Powell was in her late 20s when she began the blog that sparked her writing career, and Julia Child was nearly 40 when she finally graduated from Le Cordon Bleu. We’re reminded in this film of the ways in which older women inspire young women, and the vitality which young women like Julie Powell offer women Ephron’s age. In fact, Julie & Julia is a testament to the continuing circle of feminine renewal.