First off, it’s not a food movie. Meryl Streep doesn’t chop onions correctly, and Amy Adams debones her duck backwards — the culinary equivalent of the Merlot-hating Paul Giamatti drinking Bordeaux in the movie Sideways. The parallel stories do transmit the emotional pleasures of cooking for others. But the movie is really the story of two marriages — one successful, and one that seems likely to become so..
Julia Child grew up in a conservative upper-middle-class family in southern California, but was unsuited by appearance and temperament for the life of an executive wife she was raised to be. She joined the OSS during WWII, and in 1946 she married Paul Child, an intelligence analyst. Although they were married relatively late (she was 33, and Paul was 44), their marriage lasted nearly 50 years, until Paul’s death in 1994.
Paul joined the State Department after the war, and after a stint in China he was posted to Paris in 1949. The four years they spent there were to change Julia’s life. By1949, food abundance was returning to Paris, after years of privation. It is no surprise that an American woman who loved to eat would be so powerfully moved by French food and the French way of eating. After taking cooking classes and running a cooking school for American expatriates, Julia ultimately found herself writing, with two French women, a French cookbook for American cooks.
We are given many details of Julia’s life — we meet her parents, her sister and her friends. And Paul Child is a fully developed, complex character. He encourages Julia to develop her hobby into a lifelong passion, which eventually becomes his passion too. After Paul’s State Department career was over, the couple moved to Cambridge, where he remodeled the kitchen with cabinets and counters appropriate to Julia’s unusual height,* and special hanging boards forher kitchen pots and utensils. And Paul was the one who encouraged Julia to go on TV.
Meryl Streep does not just mimic Julia’s accent and mannerisms — she IS Julia. She carries off the scene where she learns of her sister’s pregnancy, mixing joy over her sister’s news with sorrow over her own childlessness, with a delicacy and subtlety few other actresses could match. But the real sleeper is Stanley Tucci, who gives a wonderfully understated performance as Paul Child, a man who remains both bemused and enchanted by his unusual wife for nearly 50 years
The parallel story of Julie, a New Yorker who decides to spend a year cooking all 524 recipes in Ms. Child’s book and bloggng about it, is much less interesting, and not just because she’s in Queens instead of Paris. In contrast to the richly detailed story of Julia, we learn little of Julie’s early life or the circumstances of her marriage. Her mother is just a voice on the telephone and her friendships appear superficial. Julie’s husband, although supportive, considers the cooking project something Julie is doing for herself, not something that benefits both of them. He is also very concerned with “staying out of the blog,” which is probably why we learn so little about him. As a result, their story is much less satisfying.
This is not a movie with a lot of action. And we noted that the audience for this film was mostly couples of a certain age. But it’s a wonderful and enjoyable movie about relationships — and, for a change, non-dysfunctional ones.
[*The real Julia Child was 6″2″. Meryl Streep is about 6″ shorter than Child, which means that every short extra in Hollywood must have gotten a job in this picture. ]