Not since 1998’s “You’ve Got Mail” have audiences been able to enjoy the sort of charming comedic and romantic fluff that writer and director Nora Ephron used to produce with ease. Her output in the noughties has been lacklustre at best and therefore “Julie & Julia” was perhaps received with lower expectations than her previous films. And while her ode to culinary arts can’t quite reach the heights of her early 90s form, it does remind us of Ephron’s not insignificant talents. Perhaps the first significant point to be noted is that it operates around a dual-storyline form which has become an Ephron trademark as much as Meg Ryan, though in this case the two strands do not intertwine in a physical sense as the characters are separated throughout. It’s a format that can work well though here it also serves to highlight the film’s flaws.
Sick of her day job and at general crossroads in life is Julie Powell (Amy Adams), an aspiring author with a great love of cooking. Following a suggestion by her husband Eric (Chris Messina), Julie decides to cook her way through the greatest cooking bible there is, Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” and to keep a blog about it. 365 days, 524 recipes. In parallel we follow the tale of Julia herself – played with great vigour and alacrity by the great Meryl Streep – as she writes and tries to find a publisher for the book. With her husband Paul (Stanley Tucci) working for the American embassy in Paris, the food-loving but cooking-illiterate Julia begins taking classes to pass her time as much as anything else but soon finds love for the pastime. Both women struggle through the highs and lows of their chosen tasks, taking both their happiness and frustration out on food. Based on the memoirs of Julie and Julia (and also claiming to be the first film based on a blog), each story is given its necessary screen time, neither strand coming up too long or too short, often a problem with films like this. Switching between the settings of France and New York, Ephron’s screenplay thus manages a healthy balance of opposites and even though the denouement isn’t particularly mind-blowing, the film can maintain enough likability to maintain the viewer’s interest throughout.
Meryl Streep’s performance has been much praised and is very much in keeping with the real Julia’s rather exaggerated and eccentric personality. To the casual viewer unaware of the likenesses, Streep may however come across as completely overblown and just that, exaggerated. As a result, while this does not always lead to believable results, Streep all the right notes of the Child nuances that doubtlessly made the latter’s shows so enjoyable in the first place. Amy Adams on the other hand is generally more low-key but this serves as a good counterpoint to Streeps performance. The pair had already worked together on “Doubt” one year earlier and it is clear that each has knowledge of the other, the acting adjusted accordingly. There are problems however: As a comedy, the film is far less funny than it would like itself to be, too often relying of “French charm” to entice laughs rather than being truly witty itself. Furthermore, an attempt to insert a more serious note into Julie’s strand at the end of the second act to parallel with the McCarthy investigation of Paul (which is well handled), comes out of the blue and lacks believability in its execution. Worst of all the film fails to make the viewer truly hungry, a detriment to any movie about food. Nevertheless, driven largely by Meryl Streep, the film will remain amusing to most, of not one that will be revisited too often.
Rising French composer Alexandre Desplat composed the original score for “Julia & Julia,” perhaps the most “appropriate” assignment he has received in Hollywood. The film provides a great opportunity for Desplat to explore his roots, and rise to the challenge he does. Separating out the two storylines, charming accordions and strings play to Meryl Streep while a more jazzy rhythms form the basis of Julie’s theme. As always with Desplat, there is great orchestral precision in the music, highlighted on the album in tracks like “The Original French Chef Theme” and “Eggs.” It’s an accomplished effort, with styles more often heard in romantic comedies by the likes of Rachel Portman and Hans Zimmer’s work for James L. Brooks. Musically charming, the soundtrack to “Julie & Julia” is a score that will never win any awards for originality, nor is it a groundbreaking score by any means but an easy-going, very enjoyable score. The placement of songs like “Time after Time” by Margaret Whiting on the album however, makes for a bigger distraction than it does in the film, even though they help set the time period for one of the film’s halves.
Make no mistake, this is not “Sleepless in Seattle” or “When Harry Met Sally” but Nora Ephron has proven she can still churn out very likeable fare that makes for easy viewing. Outside of Meryl Streep’s Oscar nominated performance however, it is unlikely that “Julie & Julia” will linger very long in the mind.
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