A gourmand’s delight
As Julia Child, Meryl Streep offers a masterclass in comic acting, writes Donald Clarke
EVERY NOW and then, a film comes along that renders the star rating at the top of a review virtually worthless. Nora Ephron’s peculiar breeze past the life and legacy of Julia Child, America’s most influential celebrity chef, is as conspicuous an example of such a beast as you could fear to meet.
To launch straight into the inevitable culinary similes, watching the film is like sitting down to plate of beautifully sauteed Dover sole accompanied by a bucket of congealed Pot Noodle. You are alternately smacking your lips and running to the lavatory with a napkin over your mouth.
Let’s dispatch the giblets down the waste disposal before they begin to stink up the place. Julie & Julia is inspired by a blog (subsequently a book I don’t want to read) that, on the evidence of this film, might serve as unintentional satire on the solipsism and poverty of ambition that absorbs too much online culture.
After enduring an awful lunch with her stereotypically thrusting girlfriends – screaming down Blackberries about share options and so forth – Julie Powell (a criminally underused Amy Adams) embarks upon a scheme that, all going well, will heal her psyche and raise her languishing profile. The frustrated office worker, currently living humbly in Queens, intends to cook every recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Child’s definitive doorstop, and muse upon the experience online.
Saddled with a thinly drawn husband figure (Chris Messina), whose only job is to talk with his mouth full while nodding patiently at the latest self-help inanity, Julie is then depicted shoving her arm up too many ducks, chopping too many onions and fricasseeing too many turbots. Her personal problems seem utterly inconsequential, and the culinary-derived solutions banal and obscure.
Thank heavens for Meryl Streep. In what might have been a cinematic footnote to the framing story, but which ends up overpowering it entirely, the great lady turns up between each contemporary trauma to enact a related incident from the life of Julia Child.
What a life it was. An operative on the outer edges of the intelligence community during the war, Child later married a cultured diplomat and, while stationed in Paris, learned to cook the local cuisine like a master. Later, she wrote that book and, with her bizarre, swooping voice and towering frame, became an admired TV personality.
Streep’s performance, though not exactly subtle, is one of the most entertaining she has given in her distinguished career. Someone unfamiliar with Child’s television broadcasts might find it a little over the top, but, if anything, Streep’s intonations are less eccentric than the real thing. Nonetheless, this endlessly comic creation offers a welcome celebration of all-American oddness and, in her interactions with Stanley Tucci’s touchingly supportive Paul Child, presents a rare, engaging cinematic portrait of a happy marriage.
These segments are like the colour snaps derived from the grim negative that was Julia Davis’s portrayal of Fanny Craddock in the BBC’s superb Fear of Fanny. Whereas Craddock, an exact contemporary of Child’s and a similarly unavoidable presence on TV this side of the Atlantic, leaked suburban contempt, the American embodied beefy patrician bonhomie.
The most unusual aspect of Ephron’s film is the way the glorious Julia section consistently appears to directly undermine the feeble Julie episodes. One woman maintains a complex relationship with an interesting man, learns a
Bon appetit: Stanley Tucci and Meryl Streep in Julie & Julia