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THE GOOD STORIES ARE ABOUT FOOD, AGAIN

Reel Time
Dale Hill
www.flickwitch.com

            Pauline Kael famously said that Meryl Streep is a great actress from the neck up. If Kael were alive to see “Julie and Julia” she would have to eat her words, with beurre blanc if she was lucky.

            In the most closely-observed acting job in recent history, Streep tackles the role of the the queen of American foodies, the woman who started it all, Julia Child. (And please, let this be an end to the false plural: Julia's last name is CHILD, not CHILDS.) Though Streep can get into a character's mind with the best of the Method actors, she can also use Olivier's technique of getting the externals right and letting the character follow. That appears to be the technique she's using here, because she's got the externals nailed, and her internals are perfectly centered too.

            Nora Ephron's new hit – and it appears to be a real hit – is one-half of an absolutely glorious movie. Conflating two books, she tells the true stories of two women who, years apart, find their raison d'être in the world of French cooking.

            One is Julie Powell, an unfulfilled office slavey who in 2001 resolved to cook every recipe in Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a year, and write about it in a blog.

            The other is of course the tall woman with the hooty voice, the California lady who took to French culture and French food like a pig takes to truffles, and told us all about it.

            Although she has numerous books and television series to her credit, half of the movie is based on Child's last book, My Life in France, which she wrote with her nephew Alex Prud'homme, and which was published after her death at age 91. (And take THAT, Butter Police!) 

            Julia's culinary life began in 1949 when her husband, Paul, was posted to the American Embassy in Paris, They landed in Normandy with the family car and motored inland, stopping for their first meal at La Couronne, in Rouen, the oldest restaurant in France (ca. 1345). She described her first bite of sole meunière as "an opening up of the soul and spirit for me.”                                                         

            Looking around for some way to pass the time in Paris she ended up as a student at the Cordon Bleu cooking school, and the rest, as we say, is well-documented history. Julia Child used her experiences to change the way America eats, inspiring followers such as Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower, and demystifying her subject to the point that many ten-year-olds here in the States can turn out a really good omelet.                                                                                                                                         

            What Nora Ephron has turned out is a carefully-crafted movie that flips back and forth cunningly between the two stories with clever transitions, so that you watch it and think: Oh, of course, THAT leads to THAT. Unfortunately, our delight at the transitions pretty much only works in one direction.                                                                                                                                                            
            The problem with the “Julie” segments of the movie is not that they're actually bad, it's just that we're impatient to get back to 1950s Paris with its cool fashions and great scenery and Streep fluting away in a voice that's a cross between a loon and a seagull, and whirling around with all of Child's uncontrolled ganglyness, if that's a word.                                                                                                                                 

            Or is it just that? I confess to having a hard time warming up to Julie's story. Amy Adams is a fine actress, but all she gives us here is cute and perky, even when she's having an emotional meltdown. I suspect that Ephron had her play Powell that way to cover the fact that Powell is actually pretty whiny and self-centered, for all that she claims to love Julia, and food, and her husband.                                            

            But the great thing about both relationships is that they show two determined women making something out of their lives, supported enthusiastically by loving husbands. Chris Messina, as Julie's husband Eric, comes up with the idea of a blog and helps her get on line; but in spite of all the great meals you can sense his embarrassment at becoming known to the world as “my sainted husband.” (And fer cryin' out loud, does he have to have such swinish table manners? Makes you look away from the screen every time he chews.)
                                                                                                                                               
                                    You quickly develop a real appreciation for Paul Child as a courtly gentleman who loves his wife deeply, and has a very real joy at all her achievements. Stanley Tucci, one of our greatest underused actors, plays Paul with subtlety and wit, the perfect foil to Streep's bravura turn, to the point that when he blurts out a very blue epithet against Houghton-Mifflin it makes your eyebrows shoot up.                                                                                                               

            In fact one of the manifold joys of Streep's Julia is the earthy delight with which she greets everything edible, and sexual, up to a very bawdy metaphor about manicotti.                                                         

            And, joy of joys, when her sister Dorothy, played by the outstanding Jane Lynch, visits her in Paris, we're treated to the beyond-belief sight of two weapons-grade comediennes having more fun than the law allows. And while Lynch really is tall, the 5'6” Streep convinces us she's Child's actual 6'2” with a combination of boxes (called “pancakes” in movie slang, to continue the food metaphor), special shoes, short extras, and just plain presence. Her performance is uncanny, but it goes beyond being an impersonation or a stunt, and turns into a  tribute that can be shared by all of Julia's millions of fans.                                                                

            The transition between the last two scenes is simply the loveliest in recent cinema. Julie and Eric visit Julia's kitchen, which is on display at the Smithsonian. When they walk out of the frame you see the lighting change from museum daylight to real daylight, and Paul and Julia walk into the room. Paul is carrying the mail, with a package from Knopf that contains the first copy of Julia's famous book. Cue the sniffles. Brilliant.                                                                                                                                

            I've owned four or five copies of  Mastering the Art of French Cooking (I keep giving it away to people who don't know they need it yet) and I haven't come anywhere near cooking everything in it.  The first thing I made from it was coq au vin, and I invited some people over for dinner at eight. I followed every step ludicrously slavishly, and my friends kept going out for more wine, which was helpful because we finally sat down to eat at 1 a.m.  As Meryl Streep knows very well, that's why la technique is so important.                          

                                                                                                                                                       

Among her many accolades, Julia Child received the French Legion of Honor, the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, an honorary doctorate from Harvard University, and the cover of TIME Magazine.

           

 

 

 

 

 

 

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