They sometimes say of a great performer, “I’d pay to hear him read the phone book.” I am delighted to watch Meryl Streep peel potatoes in “Julie & Julia.”
Streep plays — no, inhabits — the role of Julia Child. Before there were celebrity chefs, before there was a Food Network, there was Child, America’s first foodie. Her 1961 bestseller “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” saved our society from a dismal diet of TV dinners, casseroles and Jell-O salads. (At least it saved the other 49 states.)
When she went on public TV the following year, narrating her cleaver work in that lofty sing-song voice, America fell in love. Streep nails Child’s mannerisms, of course, but so much more — her sincerity and warmth, her gentleness and charm, her patrician air and common touch. She is the one reason to see the film, and if you close your eyes during the chapters when she is off camera, you will have a jolly time.
Unfortunately, there is much more to the movie. Amy Adams, Streep’s co-star from last year’s “Doubt,” plays Julie Powell, a New York cubicle drone who set out to cook her way through Child’s treatise, preparing all 524 recipes in 365 days and blogging about the experience.
Writer/director Nora Ephron wrings obvious irony out of the contrast between the women’s lives. The Child sequences, set in gauzy, gorgeous 1950s French locales, are little gems of grace and glamour. Her husband (Stanley Tucci, demonstrating a nice chemistry with Streep) is suave and adoring. Their apartments look like anterooms in Versailles.
Powell, circa 2002, lives above a skeevy pizzeria in Queens, and every day is a struggle. Her girlfriends are shallow successes who broker multimillion-dollar deals on their phones at lunch (and all eat dull Cobb salads). Her job is dismal: She administers federal payouts to people victimized by the 9/11 attacks, and angry callers yell at her nonstop. Ephron presents Powell’s average lower-middle-class existence as if it were a life-size bad-taste exhibit — George Segal sculptures in banal living color. Powell’s one blessing is a limitlessly supportive husband (Chris Messina), who suggests that she shake off her blues by combining the two subjects she’s passionate about — cooking and writing. Her blog catches on, and soon she’s microfamous.
So we get two women leading parallel lives, never meeting. Ephron made a similar story structure work for “Sleepless in Seattle,” with a pair of intriguing characters emotionally linked to each other, struggling to connect. Here we get one charismatic lady and a mouseburger, with no real bond. Neither speaks in the cute zingers that Ephron characters normally employ (and the biggest laugh is swiped from the fantasy novelist Douglas Adams). Neither travels a great dramatic arc. Child’s chief antagonist is a snippy functionary at the Cordon Bleu cooking school. The worst things that happen to Powell are (spoiler alert) an overcooked boeuf bourguignon and a tiff with her husband that occurs only so there can be a last-act reconciliation.
With such ingredients, how do you dramatize two women cooking and writing about cooking? Ephron makes the kitchen scenes sensually alluring — the film is a eulogy to veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demiglace and stinky cheese. French cuisine is an art and she presents it artfully; the film could be subtitled “The Joy of Cooking.” As for the writing, no one has ever made that drudgery look interesting onscreen; neither can Ephron.
The story cries out for a tricky device, a Charlie Kaufman fantasy sequence where Julia enters Julie’s imagination and leads her on a tour of Wonka-esque castles of goose liver pâté. Or an “Iron Chef” showdown. Something. But Ephron’s approach is clumpingly literal and structurally dull. Ten minutes of Julia, cut. Ten minutes of Julie, cut. As in Ephron’s last movie, 2005’s “Bewitched,” which had Nicole Kidman playing Samantha the ethereal witch and Will Ferrell playing Jack the earthbound movie star, “Julie & Julia” never works its characters into a single coherent narrative. The film feels like two stories fighting to coexist in the same space.
Loved the first course, hated the second.