Julie & Julia is absolute dynamite. "Based on two true stories," as it declares in the beginning, Julie & Julia follows the food travails of novice cook Julie Powell and Julia Child before she was a world-famous chef.
It's 1949, and Child (Meryl Streep) arrives in Paris with her diplomat husband, Paul (Stanley Tucci). Child is bored and doesn't want to waste her time in the City of Light like the other diplomats' wives, so she seeks out a hobby. She loves to eat and immerses herself in French cuisine. Two observations change her life: French people eat French food every day, and there's no French cookbook written in English. So she enrolls in the cooking school Le Cordon Bleu and takes to it like a duck to butter.
It's 2002, and Powell (Amy Adams) has just moved to Queens with her editor husband, Eric (Chris Messina). Powell feels inferior to her same-age friends who are successful businesswomen and high-powered professionals. She's a low-level bureaucrat in the post-9/11 NYC rebuilding effort, and she's staring at 30 with no real accomplishments under her belt.
But she loves to write, and she has a desire to learn to cook well. With the advent of blogs, she has a vehicle for her creativity. Her idea: to cook the 524 recipes from Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 365 days and to blog about it. After all, Eric tells her, "Julia Child wasn't always Julia Child." So Powell launches the "Julie/Julia Project" on a Salon.com blog, and it takes off like a well-turned foodie phrase loosed in the hipsterverse.
Streep is dominant as Child. I'll admit a bias she has to overcome: I generally think the actress is overrated, with a few, recent-er exceptions (Adaptation, Doubt). But in Julie & Julia, she transcends, taking a well-known personality and walking the performance between familiarity and caricature. Streep's Child is physically big and broad and magnanimous — gracefully ungainly. It's great physical acting. She nails the voice and mannerisms, too, and adds a comic flourish that helps define the movie as a comedy rather than a stuffy biopic.
Adams, too, is swell. She sports a circa-2002 bob haircut and has kind of a Julie Hagerty thing going on that gives her an infectious spirit. But Adams also taps into the forlorn underpinnings behind Powell's project, and she sells the joy cooking brings her (along with the attendant relationship indigestion).
For it all, writer/director Nora Ephron may be the strong link in Julie & Julia. Ephron wrote for Streep way back when with the drama Silkwood and the autobiographical Heartburn (with Streep as the Ephron stand-in), but she's known best for the rom-com titans Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail. Her touch in Julie & Julia is golden. With a tight grip on the historical minutiae of both storylines in addition to the enormous entertainment value at work, Ephron adds an earthy heft to the picture that lands it between a typically breezy chic flick and a stuffy biopic. It's the best movie of the year so far, and I've seen The Hurt Locker.