The other day I watched a dead woman cook a hamburger on Public Television, and it was just effin' great.
Clarification: It's not a Zombie cooking show. The woman wasn't dead at the time. She's dead now. But when she was with us, Julia Child was a life force----a towering, tittering, wisecracking, passionate, smart, immensely charming woman who delighted millions with the landmark book Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and of course all those TV shows, most notably "The French Chef."
And now the equally treasured Meryl Streep pays tribute to Child with a masterful and wondrous performance in "Julie & Julia," a movie with SLIGHTLY fewer explosions than you'll find in "G.I. Joe"----but about a 1,000-point edge in overall cinematic I.Q.
Nora Ephron deftly volleys back and forth between the story of Julia Child's epic struggle in the 1940s and 1950s to become a chef and get her book published, and blogger Julie Powell's effort a half-century later to cook all 524 recipes in Child's landmark tome. Powell is played by the ever-sunshiney Amy Adams, who gives a fine performance here, as always, even though she's saddled with playing a sweet but self-pitying type whose passion for Child sometimes makes her come across as a thirtyish version of a "Twilight" fan. ("Julia would NEVER do that...") By the time her husband finally explodes at her for being so selfish and for mining every detail of their life for a blog item, you want to shout: "About time you grew a pair, sporto."
[SIDEBAR: Powell's next book reportedly details the affair she had with a close friend. Ephron said that wasn't in the movie because it happened after the time frame depicted. Even if had happened during the period chronicled in the film, there's no way it would have been a part of "Julie & Julia." Audiences would have LOATHED Julie----not a good thing when she's supposed to be the heroine of the story.]
From the moment Child and her husband (Stanley Tucci) arrive in Paris and she greets the locals in her trademark pitch, which sounds like John Cleese doing a female character on an old "Python" sketch, you can't help but love Streep/Child. The average-sized Streep----with the considerable help of cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt and the props team----does a remarkable job of occupying Child's giantess frame and her larger-than-life personality. Undaunted by setback after setback after setback, Julia presses on with her dream of mastering French cooking and sharing her secrets with the world. In the meantime, Julie is more "daunted" by setback after setback after setback, but she, too, perseveres, albeit with less charm and romance than her idol. (In Julie's defense, her story is set in Queens, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, while the bulk of Julia's story is set in a storybook, postwar version of Paris.)
Tucci lends his dry wit and sly warmth to the role of Julia's supportive husband, who adores her so. Jane Lynch has a classic cameo straight out of the 1930s-screwball-comedy playbook as Julia's taller, wackier sister. The guy playing Julie's husband is, um, hold on here, Chris Messina, who's done some good work in other stuff but is stuck here either saying, "Delicious!" as he samples Julie's dishes, or stomping about because she's more concerned about what's cooking in the kitchen than what's cooking elsewhere. When she deigns to make love to him, he's like a grateful puppy.
Adams can be heartbreakingly charming, as when she says to her husband, "Are you back? Pleeeeze be back." But this is Streep's movie every inch of the way, as she hits every comedic line out of the park but never reduces Child to an impersonation or a caricature. There is genuine sadness and weariness in Julia's eyes when her cookbook is rejected or when her husband tells her they have to leave her beloved Paris; there is a deep love in her expression when she gazes upon her husband. Streep's Julia Child is not a saint, but she sure as hell is someone you'd want to share a hundred dinners with, no matter who was doing the cooking.
Every time we flash forward to Julie's story, you're thinking: More Julia, less Julie, and this would have been a perfect recipe.
*About that burger: It was a ginormous hunk of meat on a big bun, and Julia bathed it in ketchup and cradled it in lettuce and onions. It was so huge they had to cut it in half just to take a bite out of it. And when the burger was finished, Julia and her guest chef toasted the audience with a glass of red wine. Beautiful.