"Julie & Julia” opens with famed cook Julia Child (Meryl Streep), but its heart is with its other protagonist, sort-of-famous foodie Julie Powell (Amy Adams), who took on every recipe in Child's seminal book, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” while blogging about the experience.
In adapting the book the real Powell wrote about her impressive year (“Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen”) director Nora Ephron (“Sleepless in Seattle,” “You've Got Mail”), decided to knead in Child's story. Her tale of transformation by the sights, smells and especially tastes of Paris, taken from her late-life memoir, “My Life in France,” is a sort of companion to Julie's endeavor. There's an inherent novelty factor about the film — two true stories for the price of one! — but it soon gives way to a less-agreeable reality: two intrepid women, who succeeded in reinventing themselves, both given rather ordinary presentation, with inconsistent ingredients.
Taking on Child's well-known idiosyncrasies, Streep bobs, plunges and gyrates over recipes as if she were dancing to some odd German techno — her husband, Paul (Stanley Tucci), compares her to a jazz drummer — while chattering like an exotic prehistoric bird. Child hit the top of the measuring stick at 6-foot-2, but the much shorter Streep nails the gourmet's bold indifference to being physically different. The script is too shallow to delve deeper, restricting Streep's performance to mere impersonation, but the impersonation is a hoot.
Carve out the Julia part and you have the makings of a spirited if unprepossessing biopic. Cute fun but nothing to blog about. As it is, the movie forces us to slog through its modern-day half about down-on-her-luck newlywed Julie, a Queens, N.Y., transplant. She loves her husband, Eric (Chris Messina, playing a guy so nice you want to kick him), but she so much hates answering nasty phone calls at her office job and living in a cramped apartment that she turns her love of cooking into a year-long marathon.
In one of those movie moments where the characters say something like, “You know, why don't you do the thing this movie is going to be about,” Eric leans over Julie's cooking and says, well, you know. The same scene happens with Julia and Paul, but somehow Streep and Tucci make it more natural and interesting. It's not just the acting; there's more to their characters, no matter how even-handed the movie tries to be.
Julia's nearly decadelong ordeal to become published — language and culinary schooling, cooking, translating, meeting with publishers, and, mon Dieu, getting along with Parisians! — ends up towering over the comparative trivialities of Julie's obsessive but self-indulgent project, at least as it's processed and freeze-dried in Ephron's formulaic approach.
Ephron should get credit for the enjoyably vivacious Julia half, but in refashioning both parts into a quaint, easily digestible comic vehicle she makes Julia's story feel truncated and Julie's overblown.
Child revolutionized the American kitchen, but you'd never know it except that Julie says so. The effect on Julie is what's important to the movie, and Ephron never proves it's that important. Yes, Julie was inspired by Julia, but what was the effect on her besides fame of the famous-for-being-famous kind? (In an indicatively cutesy epilogue we're told Powell's book was turned into a movie.) And how did she pay for all those ingredients?
When Powell gets written up by The New York Times, she's wounded to learn that Child finds her efforts disrespectful. What to make of that? Nothing, according to “Julie & Julia,” which dusts off the moment like veal cutlets it accidentally dropped.
Cinematically, Julie's blogging gives new meaning to the phrase “food coma,” but there's a sense of lost opportunity here, as well. Powell's book suggests a saucier person — evident even in a gloss of her original blog, “The Julie/Julia Project,” still hosted at Salon.com — which Ephron has turned into one of her standard, frumpy-but-cute-but-dorky-but-perky rom-com gals, limiting her year of Julia to the same predictable ups and downs of the rom-com story arc.
Such a recipe calls for more sugar than either of the movie's subjects would probably be comfortable with. Some will call the result sweet. Others will feel as if they've been force-fed crA"me brulee. Nobody will have ingested more than the frozen-movie version of Julie or Julia. (PG-13) 123 min. HHIIIS