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August 16, 2009

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Fun but one cook enough

THE Julia parts in "Julie & Julia" are a delight. The ones about Julie? Well, more like an annoying distraction.

Writer-director Nora Ephron has woven together the real-life stories of two women separated by decades and a body of water but connected by a love of food and a quest for identity.

One is Julia Child (Meryl Streep), the larger-than-life TV cook and author who inspired untold numbers of ambitious gourmands to embrace French cuisine the way she had.

The other is Julie Powell (Amy Adams), a cubicle dweller who spent a year making all 524 recipes in Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" and blogging about it, hoping to find some purpose as she turned 30 in post-9/11 New York.

Ephron cuts back and forth between their lives - reminiscent of her earlier hits "Sleepless in Seattle" and "You've Got Mail" - and too often hammers home the parallels, even though the film's structure makes them pretty obvious.

She based her script on the memoirs "Julie & Julia" by Powell and "My Life in France," which Child wrote with Alex Prud'homme. At one point, Julie literally spells out the ways in which she and Julia are similar (an obsession with cooking, fantastic husbands, a fondness for butter) by typing them on her laptop.

Then we see the words as they appear on the screen while we listen to Julie saying them in a voiceover. It's a redundant, weak storytelling device - one that feels like a ripoff of "Sex and the City" - and it's those kinds of tactics that make "Julie & Julia" feel overlong.

The more time we spend with Julia, the less we want to spend with Julie. Streep is an absolute hoot, portraying Child with a mix of sweetness, awkwardness and most of all an unabashed joie de vivre.

When she casts aside the baggage of being "the greatest living actress of our generation" and revels in her inner goofball, as she did in the ABBA musical "Mamma Mia!" it's infectious to watch.

All the craft is still there, of course - the gifts of imitation and immersion - she just seems liberated.

She's also lovely alongside Stanley Tucci, who's so subtle as Julia's adoring husband, Paul, whose job brought them to France in 1948; all that tension they created as co-stars in "The Devil Wears Prada" has transformed into a different kind of chemistry.

They're in love with Paris, with food, with each other, and it's impossible not to get caught up in their enthusiasm.Streep is also a kick in the scenes she shares with Jane Lynch as Julia's sister, Dorothy - their extreme height making it difficult to fit in, but their sense of humor fortifying them.

Julie, by contrast, isn't so well-defined; it isn't so easy to connect with her. The deeper she delves into her cooking project and the more she withdraws from her enormously supportive husband (Chris Messina), the more whiny, narcissistic and unlikable she becomes, surprising given Adams' boundless charm.

Working through Julia's ground-breaking tome feels like a tedious chore or source of slapstick than an accomplishment, as Ephron focuses on Julie's culinary screw-ups.

This should have been a biopic of Julia Child, if only to hear Streep say more things like "beurre blanc" in that distinctive, high-pitched voice. That would have been a meal worth sinking your teeth into.


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