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‘Julie & Julia’ fails to blend ingredients

Fri., Aug. 7, 2009

They sometimes say of a great performer, “I’d pay to hear him read the phone book.”

I am delighted to watch Meryl Streep peel potatoes in “Julie & Julia.” Streep plays – no, inhabits – the role of Julia Child.

Before there were celebrity chefs, before there was a Food Network, there was Child, America’s first foodie. Her 1961 best-seller “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” saved our society from a dismal diet of TV dinners, casseroles and Jell-O salads.

When she went on public TV the following year, narrating her cleaver work in that lofty sing-song voice, America fell in love.

Streep nails Child’s mannerisms, but so much more – her sincerity and warmth, her gentleness and charm, her patrician air and common touch.

Unfortunately, there is much more to the movie. Amy Adams, Streep’s co-star from last year’s “Doubt,” plays Julie Powell, a New York cubicle drone who set out to cook her way through Child’s treatise, preparing all 524 recipes in 365 days and blogging about the experience.

Writer/director Nora Ephron wrings obvious irony out of the contrast between the women’s lives. The Child sequences, set in gauzy, gorgeous 1950s French locales, are little gems of grace and glamour. Her husband (Stanley Tucci) is suave and adoring. Their apartments look like anterooms in Versailles.

Powell, circa 2002, lives above a skeevy pizzeria in Queens, and every day is a struggle. Her job is dismal: She administers federal payouts to people victimized by the 9-11 attacks, and angry callers yell at her nonstop.

So we get two women leading parallel lives, never meeting. Ephron made a similar story structure work for “Sleepless in Seattle,” with a pair of intriguing characters emotionally linked to each other, struggling to connect. Here we get one charismatic lady and a mouseburger, with no real bond.

With such ingredients, how do you dramatize two women cooking and writing about cooking? Ephron makes the kitchen scenes sensually alluring – the film is a eulogy to veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demiglace and stinky cheese.

But “Julie & Julia” never works its characters into a single coherent narrative. The film feels like two stories fighting to coexist in the same space.

Loved the first course, hated the second.

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