— Chefs spend the summer months concocting meals around berries, melon and tomatoes, as the rising mercury makes it too difficult to cope with a full, heavy meal.
Think of “Julie & Julia” as a the cinematic equivalent to a honeydew wedge wrapped in prosciutto — it’s wonderful going down and immensely satisfying, but deep down you know it doesn’t really count as dinner.
If nothing else, the film stands out as a landmark in the ongoing career of Nora Ephron, who has, in the last 40 years, gone from being a sharp and witty essayist to a talented novelist and screenwriter to an utterly hacky filmmaker; with “Julie & Julia,” however, she demonstrates for the very first time that she knows what she’s doing behind the camera.
The film announces in the opening credits that it’s “Based on two true stories,” and Ephron deftly juggles them both. We begin with Julia Child (Meryl Streep) moving to France with her husband Paul (Stanley Tucci), a U.S. diplomat. Looking for something to occupy her time, Julia attends classes at the Cordon Bleu and eventually joins up with gourmands Simone Beck (Linda Emond) and Louisette Bertholle (Helen Carey) to create “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” the influential cookbook that brought great cuisine to America’s bland, post-WWII kitchens.
The parallel story, set in 2002, follows a year in the life of frustrated writer Julie Powell (Amy Adams), who spends her days fielding requests and complaints from the families of 9/11 victims and first-responders. At the urging of her husband Eric (Chris Messina), she decides to tackle all 500-plus recipes in “Mastering” over the course of one year, blogging about it all the while.
At first, no one seems to be reading the blog — except for Julie’s disapproving mother (Mary Kay Place, who becomes one of the film’s most indelible characters despite being a disembodied voice on the phone) — but eventually it takes off, leading to an interview in the New York Times and eventually the book on which this film is partially based.
Thankfully, the film gives us license to not entirely like Julie, who comes off as something of a bratty pill next to her far more patient husband; being spared from adoring Julie takes some of the sting out of the fact that Adams’ doe-eyed ingénue routine is getting old, fast. Watching her blog away at her laptop, I was reminded of another of Ephron’s typing heroines, Meg Ryan in “You’ve Got Mail,” and it wasn’t a positive association.
Streep, on the other hand, tackles the role with the same gusto with which Child would tear into a sole meunière. The actress takes the chef’s oft-imitated voice and runs with it, creating a larger-than-life sensualist who enjoys croissants and coitus with equal passion. Her scenes with Jane Lynch (as Julia’s sister) are such comic delights that it’s disappointing when Lynch suddenly disappears from the film.
Nonetheless, the cast is uniformly excellent; Tucci and Messina don’t allow themselves to be wiped off the screen by their leading ladies, and Ephron has loaded the cast with great scene-stealers like Mary Lynn Rajskub, Vanessa Ferlito, Frances Sternhagen and Deborah Rush. (More than one person on my row indicated a wish to have seen Rajskub, rather than Adams, play Julie.)
While Ephron has her share of commercial hits, she’s also been responsible for duds like “Lucky Numbers,” “Bewitched” and the truly toxic “Mixed Nuts.” But even her successes (“You’ve Got Mail,” “Sleepless in Seattle”) felt clunky and impersonal. With “Julie & Julia,” Ephron has matured into a talented storyteller who doesn’t have to bludgeon the audience with Nat King Cole songs to get them to feel something.
Maybe it’s the subject matter; Ephron is a legendary foodie — I’ve always gotten raves when I make the sorrel soup recipe from her novel “Heartburn” — and she and cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt film all the gourmet dishes in a way that will make audiences swoon. Through some magic, she also makes the “Julie” segments as compelling as the “Julia” ones; even though Streep owns the movie, I didn’t find myself counting the minutes until she was back on screen.
In the end, “Julie & Julia” doesn’t stack up as much more than a pleasant summertime diversion, but it’s hands down the best such trifle that Ephron has ever concocted.
Follow msnbc.com Movie Critic Alonso Duralde at http://www.twitter.com/MSNBCalonso.