Biopics in recent years have featured artists and fallen leaders of all sorts, but no one quite like Julia Child. Based in part on Child’s memoir, My Life in France, the new film "Julie & Julia" follows the well-known chef and teacher from her discovery of her innate love for cooking to her decade-long effort to publish the cookbook that made her a household name, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961). In the film we learn that Child, played by Meryl Streep, could barely boil an egg when she married at the age of 34. That her books and public television series ultimately redefined American cooking illustrates again the old adage that those who (at first) can’t, teach.
The movie divides its attention between Child and an unlikely disciple, Julie Powell, played by Amy Adams, a government employee who, in 2002, takes up the challenge of cooking all 524 recipes in Child's cookbook in her Queens apartment and lives to blog about it. (She later published a book from which the film takes its name.) Her project begins in obscurity and gains recognition because it fulfills so well what Child set out to do in her cookbook: provide fool-proof recipes that teach the technique of French cooking so well that even someone like Powell could receive the kind of education Child enjoyed at the prestigious Cordon Bleu in Paris.
The film revolves around the parallel stories of the two women, at different times and places, discovering cooking, but Child's story is inevitably more compelling. To begin with, Powell's discovery takes place in a world that Child created, in which cooking is a legitimate avenue for professional and personal fulfillment. No such notion existed for Child when she began; she started cooking lessons simply to fill her time while her husband was at work. For this reason, Child's maiden voyages to Parisian markets, joyfully selecting ripe tomatoes and freshly baked bread, and the scenes in which she feverishly chops onions and fearlessly slices open a lobster to outdo the men her class, are exciting to watch—not least of all because she’s played by the astonishing Meryl Streep.
Streep’s bravura is not overdone. It captures all the unfussy joie-de-vivre and graciousness that endeared Child to America. The actress, a good deal shorter than Child's six-foot-two stature, manages not only to embody Child's lumbering gestures but also convey by turns the self-consciousness and self-assertion they invoke. Plus, her replication of Child's sing-song New England accent is uncanny.
Stanley Tucci, who plays Child's husband Paul, is a perfect complement to Streep. He displays a measured worldliness, encouraging but grounding, without which Child's energy might have remained directionless. He takes real joy in his wife's pursuits, and offers comfort when Child, at first, suffers rejection after rejection of her cookbook's manuscript.
The New Yorker recently predicted that audiences would resent the screen time Adams's Powell takes away from Streep's Child. This may be true, but the decision to add the contemporary narrative strikes me as the right one. The transcendence that Streep and Tucci bring to the Childs' story might have floated into the realm of the “unrelatable” were it not grounded by Julie Powell, played capably by Adams. Powell's quest to find an outlet for writing through cooking is punctuated by frustrations, lapses into self-involvement, strains on her marriage—all the things that would happen to any one of us in such an undertaking. Which is exactly the point: Julia Child is not one of us.
A hero’s uniqueness is a common premise for biopics, but Child is even set apart from the likes of Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Truman Capote and other legends whose life stories have lately appeared onscreen. She had neither their early talent nor their singular ambition (nor their unraveling due to drugs, infidelity or narcissism). Rather, she was one of us and, through tireless passion and hard work, she became one of them, and taught us how to do it, too.