Too many reviews have concentrated on the utter banality of the Amy Adams section of Julie and Julia, and while they’re right they also overlook one point: the utter banality of Ephron’s conception of “self-fulfillment.” Where it not for the pure charm of Meryl Streep’s impersonation of Julia Childs (the audience was mooing to itself as it exited the theater — a tribute to how well Streep-as-Child’s mannerisms had impressed themselves) and Adams’ commitment to transforming a whiny bore into a human being, I couldn’t have swallowed (sorry) the notion that a woman as talented and weird as the real Julia Child became a master out of sheer frustration with her lot in life. Child and Julie Powell, Ephron argues, deserve parallel story lines because both women would have stayed unrealized — mere appendages to their husbands’ genial will. Child herself — a well-traveled secretary with the Office of Strategic Services, the first incarnation of the modern CIA — would have balked at the hint of a shared destiny with this ninny. Ever the canny operator, Ephron allows herself an out by including a scene in which a reporter calls Powell with news that Child is contemptuous of the young blogger’s efforts. Right. It smells just as badly as a fight earlier in the picture between Powell and her husband; he accuses her of narcissism. Only a hack screenwriter resorts to these escapes. Acknowledging problems with your script doesn’t end with characters acknowledging there’s problems.
For all that, Julie and Julia rolls along at a comfortable pace. This is the first Nora Ephron picture with actors allowed to spark off each other; she lets them sit back and fly, especially whenever Stanley Tucci and the excellent Jane Lynch (as Child’s almost as weird sister) are on screen. I’ve said a lot of nasty things about RoboStreep over the years, most of which apply to early acclaimed performances in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Sophie’s Choice, and Ironweed, in which she’s concentrating so hard on perfecting accents and how to relate her makeup and costuming to them that she gnawed her characters to ribbons. Starting with The Bridges of Madison County, though, she started to relax on camera, and her new impishness enlivened One True Thing, Adaptation, and, best of all, The Devil Wears Prada (she suffered a relapse in Doubt; she had an accent and a wimple to worry about). Where before her best performances were as frosty women with an absurd sense of their own importance (Plenty, Out of Africa, A Cry in the Dark), she now blooms when she gets to laugh and act silly. I can’t think of another actress with this trajectory — maybe Ralph Richardson comes closest (The Fallen Idol to Greystoke is quite a distance). What’s delightful is that audiences are responding: every Streep movie since Prada has been a moderate to huge hit.