Surely it would be too clichéd to review director Nora Ephron's Julie & Julia using an extended analogy between film and food. Surely, it's a crime of culinary and critical comparison, right? And yet, one cannot help oneself, as celebrated chef Julia Child herself might have said while dipping her fingers into bowls of buttercream frosting. So, here it is: the way in which this film is much like a soufflé.
As in the section "Soufflé: general information" of my own seriously dog-eared copy of Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, all of the ingredients, techniques and tools for making a satisfying final dish are present in the film. Ephron's direction and screenwriting proves her capacity with themes of food, conflict and romance. Meryl Streep delivers yet another of her uncanny inhabitations of character. From her physical replication of the big, awkward and beautiful ballet that was Child in motion, to her pitch-perfect warbling of Child's famously un-modulated voice, Streep is astounding. Stanley Tucci matches her, bringing gravitas and dignity, as well as a sense of delight to the role of her husband, Paul Child, who himself carried similar qualities into his relationship with Julia. In addition, the stunt-concept of a 21st century blogger, Julie Powell (Amy Adams), attempting to make every single recipe in the cookbook in 365 days is an interesting one. Especially since Powell works against significant odds, including the speed of contemporary life (the average American cook spends around 27 minutes preparing meals).
Another spicy, savory component the film brings to its narrative is its insistence—both playful and profound—on connections between food and sexual desire, as well as between the creation of sustenance and human love. The bed remains never very far from what is being baked. Some of the most memorable scenes involve Paul and Julia making love after lunch before returning to their afternoon lives.
And there is butter—the symbol of supreme satisfaction in cooking and consumption in the film. Child once famously said, "With enough butter, anything is good." Words to live by, and an axiom that Julie & Julia takes seriously. The film is, after all, about food, and from the opening scene in which the Childs share a simple Sole Meunière (sole dredged in flour—á la meunière, like a miller would—cooked in butter, lemon and parsley) to the Reine de Saba/Queen of Sheba chocolate and almond cake that Julie Powell makes for her partner Eric (Chris Messina), the film revels in the production and eating of food. Enough butter, indeed: the film can cook.
A dish of "glory and lightness" is how Child describes the soufflé, and it's this high mark that a film that understands and takes seriously the joy of cooking and eating ought also to achieve. And yet, one watches the screen, as through an oven window, only to find the film fall flat somewhere at the joint between the two stories, just where its rising should be most assured. The soufflé depends upon meticulous and monitored incorporation of its various elements from the first step—a roux that forms the basis of the béchamel sauce—to the light folding of the "voluminously stiff" egg whites into the sauce. It's this incorporation, the folding together of the two separate stories that never really happens. Amy Adams is no Meryl Streep and her character, for all the appeal of her story, is no match for Julia Child, whose history is one of sustained and heroic kitchen courage. Moreover, the tone of the film wavers as it passes between narrative boundaries. Child, perhaps unfairly, says that Powell's efforts in the kitchen aren't "serious." And it seems an apt critique: On the Powell side of the film there is something a bit too cute and reminiscent of Ephron's work in romantic comedy movies like You've Got Mail. The somewhat anomalous—albeit occasional—screwball feel of the Powell narrative is signaled early by the joining of "Julie" to "Julia" with an ampersand, but there are other moments that give that half of the film its uneven, almost half-baked quality.
See Julie & Julia anyway. During the cheese soufflé episode called "The French Chef," wherein she advises the viewer how to be "the big boss of the big soufflé," Child insists that even if the recipe goes wildly awry, "you should never be at a loss to do something" to bring the meal to the table. Deflated chocolate soufflés, when rolled up, dusted with powered sugar, sliced and served with ice cream and chocolate sauce are delicious.
In the same way, the film does collapse on itself, but there is still "something" you can do with its food, its sense of fun and its homage to the woman who altered the course of American culinary practice with her inimitable translation of the phrase "bon appétit" into the vernacular of the American kitchen.
Julie & Julia continues at the Carmike 10.