The ideal recipe has a special ingredient that can lift a dish from meh to memorable. Meryl Streep — at her brilliant, beguiling best — is the spice that does the trick for the yummy Julie & Julia. Written and directed with sharp wit and unforced wonder by Nora Ephron, the movie offers a tasting menu of two lives. Streep plays the famed food writer and TV chef Julia Child, and her Doubt co-star Amy Adams plays Julie Powell, the New York secretary who wrote a blog and a book about the year (2002-03) she spent preparing all 524 recipes in Julia’s 1961 bestseller Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
Since Julie and Julia never made contact (don’t ask), the film strains to find parallels. No offense to the talented Adams, but Julie’s story is no match for Julia’s. Ephron draws from Julia’s memoir, My Life in France, which deals with this California girl’s love for U.S. diplomat Paul Child (Stanley Tucci) and their adventures in Paris that began in 1948. Tucci and Streep are magical together, creating a portrait of an unconventional marriage that deserves its own movie. Julia was a 30-ish virgin when they met. She and Paul, both with war experience in Army intelligence, would send friends naughty photos of themselves, one naked in a tub. How can Julie, playing chef in a cramped Queens kitchen while husband Eric (Chris Messina) simmers in frustration, compare to Julia and Paul in France sampling a sole meunière (butter has never looked this sexy) that turned her into a pioneer of gastronomy?
Portraying a woman 20 years younger than her 59 and eight inches taller than her five feet six (how’d they do that?), Streep digs deep into Julia in ways that go beyond impersonation, though her bon appétit warble is the niftiest since Dan Aykroyd’s SNL spoof. Most people remember Julia (she died in 2004 at 91) for making classic French cooking accessible to American kitchens. But Ephron and Streep know better. It is Julia’s joy that lives in the ardent perfectionism of those recipes. She understood that savoring the right food could lead to “an opening up of the soul and spirit.” As for guys — who prefer their food fast, like their women — don’t pretend eating well is just a chick thing. This movie is a chance to find your inner Julia. Go for it.