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The joy of Julia

Movies | Meryl Streep's grand depiction of cooking icon Child dominates Julie and Julia

Issue: "The ABCs of C Street," Aug. 29, 2009

The screen adaptation of Julie Powell's book Julie and Julia may have better been titled The Joy of Julia. Meryl Streep's portrayal of Julia Child brings the cooking guru's joie de vivre to life with such relish that it's hard to find room for the other side of the story.

Child's introduction of French cuisine to the American palate and kitchen was all the more memorable for the outsized personality and package in which it came. Child's enthusiasm for food and her husband are more than worthy of a screen adaptation.

Here she is just one half of the story, however. The impetus for the film is the book that Powell penned after spending a year cooking and blogging her way through Child's seminal work Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Filmmaker Nora Ephron's screenplay pairs the lives of the two women, and while that structure helps give the film shape, it also manages to highlight the ways that Child's life (and Streep's depiction of her) outshines the Powell story line.

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The parallels work well to propel the story at first. Both women started off with an interest and native ability in the kitchen, adoring husbands, and a healthy dose of ambition. Through training at the Cordon Bleu in Paris and her attempt to do for French cuisine what The Joy of Cooking did for American cooking generally, Child became one of the most well-known chefs in the world. By hitching her wagon to Julia's and documenting her attempts to cook every recipe in that book, Powell (played by Amy Adams) got herself a book deal and now a movie adaptation.

It's only natural that Powell would suffer from a comparison between the two women, but the gap between their achievements is only widened by Streep's presence on screen.

The actress's portrayal goes beyond mimicry of the cooking icon to a full appreciation of her general demeanor. From her large frame to that oddly lilting voice and her unapologetic enthusiasm, Child was an icon that broke the mold. Streep is clearly enjoying herself here, and she manages to capture a few of Child's bon mots and effervescence while she's at it.

And it's her passion that makes her so appealing to watch. That and watching Streep engage with Stanley Tucci, who plays Child's husband Paul. Ephron lovingly plays the two off of each other, demonstrating their affection in subtle ways throughout the film. Together with the bond between Powell and her husband (played admirably by Chris Messina), Julie and Julia is one of the most positive cinematic arguments for matrimony in recent memory.

The couples' affection is almost as luscious as the shots of food and the cooking process on display. The film could easily make Americans fall in love with French cuisine all over again. Adams recites multiple monologues on the beauties of butter, boeuf bourguignon, uncrowded mushrooms, and, of course, Julia herself.

The film does an excellent job making the case for these things. The problem is that Powell never gets beyond being an intense fan, and the narrative is grounded by her trajectory. After finishing her book, Child went on to become one of the great chefs of all time. Powell went on to write a book about learning butchering skills and cheating on her husband with a release date that has been delayed until well after this film comes out.

Flipping between the story lines in the film (which end with the publication of both books) it gets harder and harder to be apart from Streep's Julia when she's not on screen. In the end, it's her film and everyone else is just following along with the recipe.


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