Julia Child's letters home are vivacious, illustrating her generosity and wit, her resolve and sense of humor.
When Julia Child (Meryl Streep) arrives in Paris in 1949, she brings her station wagon. It's lowered from the ship by ropes and cables, large and wood-paneled. She and her diplomat husband Paul (Stanley Tucci) drive to their new home through cobblestone streets, too narrow for their big American car but so definitively "French" that the couple are only delighted with every careen or close call.
The car appears for just a minute or so at the start of Julie & Julia, but it indicates how Julia will take to her new environs. Like her station wagon, she is oversized and outstanding, taller and louder than the slim-waisted French ladies who attend diplomats' parties or the hat-making classes she tries as a way to feel purposeful. Even as Julia looks out of place, however, she is thrilled by the new tastes and smells. Gallumphy, sweet, and sometimes short of breath, she navigates Paris with an irresistible fearlessness: as she announces in a restaurant, "I feel French!" Or, Paul narrates, no matter her difference in size and affect from her neighbors, Julia charms nearly everyone -- on sidewalks, at outdoor markets, and eventually, in her male-students-only cooking class at the Cordon Bleu.
Julia's outrageous charisma is also the main appeal of Nora Ephron's movie. Whenever it cuts away from her to the other titular character, Julie (Amy Adams), it feels sapped of energy. Julie, despite Adams' celebrated animation, is a dreary girl, so different from Julia that she seems more a distraction than a co-focus. As she makes her own new arrival in Queens, where her husband Eric (Chris Messina) has a new job, she is depressed, unhappy with the noise, the isolation, and her new job -- sitting in a cubicle and answering phone calls from 9/11 survivors. In contrast to Julia's seemingly instant groundbreaking dynamism, Julie appears right away to be stuck.
Of course, this dissimilarity is the film's point of departure -- or Julie's anyway. Acutely aware of her precursor/counterpart, Julie comes to the rather odd conclusion that the way to save her own life, that is, to find "something to do," she will cook her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Child's pioneering first cookbook. Even as the movie charts the book's conception -- Child wrote it with Simone Beck (Linda Emond) and Louisette Bertholle (Helen Carey) -- and the years-long, sometimes difficult process of getting it published -- it follows along with Julie's efforts to master its 524 recipes in one year's time, as well as blogging about it on Salon.com. Suffice it to say that Julie's adventure is not nearly so compelling as Julia's.
The movie works hard to balance their differences in rhythm and energy, showing how each has a supportive husband and matched passions for cooking and writing. The cooking makes for some predictable kitchen slapstick: Julie frets over making aspics, boiling live lobsters, and boning a duck, Julia spends hours chopping onions, filling her apartment with fumes to the point that Paul must gag and back away, unable to enter. The writing is more interesting, as it allows not only for a certain self-expression (or self-declaration, as Julia determines she will write a book for "servantless" American housewives "like" herself, with enthusiasm if not lots of money), but also reveals ways that women communicate with each other -- in worlds where men tend to do all the talking.
Julie's version is pathetic-lite. She writes on her blog late into the night, the light of her computer monitor making her cherubic face seem near-aglow, waiting to hear back from readers. At first, she has none, or none who write back, anyway (when she does hear from one, her mother, voiced on the phone by the always excellent Mary Kay Place, it is to make the point that she's on her own); eventually, she does have dear readers, who send her jars of condiments and whom she addresses as if they are friends. Julie does have an actual friend, or more accurately, a mundane rom-commy device, the amusing confidant (an underused Mary Lynn Rajskub), but finds her most profound bond with Julia, admiring her elegant style (she wears pearls even in the kitchen), following her recipes, and thoroughly enjoying her TV performances (she and Eric also watch Dan Aykroyd as Julia Child on Saturday Night Live, as funny now as it was in 1978).
Again, the cuts in time underline the difference between Julie and Julia: Child's correspondents are immediate and emotional connections, as she writes lively letters home to her sister Dorothy (Jane Lynch, who does at last come to Paris, gloriously tall and blunt like Julia) and dear friend Avis (Deborah Rush). These relationships are as vivacious in their writing (and narration, in Streep's spot-on version of Child's distinctive vocals) as they are in person, illustrating Julia's generosity and wit, her resolve and sense of humor. Unfortunately, Julie's sometimes whiny, often self-indulgent infatuation with all things Julia is not so amusing.