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Streep delights in charming but flawed “Julie & Julia”

Not even the French can resist the formidable charms of Julia Child/Meryl Streep.

Not even the French can resist the charms of Meryl Streep in "Julie & Julia."

Sing. Dance. Pyschoanalyze. Charm. Interrogate. Make like Hitler in a habit. Cook. The more I watch Meryl Streep, the more I wonder: Is there anything in the whole wide world this actress cannot do?

Short of invasive brain surgery, all signs point to a hearty “no way.”  (Still, if you gave her a copy of “Gray’s Anatomy” and a scalpel, well, who knows?) In “Julie & Julia,” Streep proves anew that she’s an actress undaunted by the prospect of playing any character — even if said character is none other than the legendary Julia Child. Streep dives cheerfully into the role, nailing the shrill rhythms of Child’s famous voice and injecting so much spirit and life into her part you can almost taste the butter in her sole meunière. The fact that she’s no dead ringer for the departed French chef — Streep, in fact, is six inches shy of Child’s 6’2″ — means absolutely nothing. Minutes in, she’ll make you believe she’s Child incarnate. Bon appétit, indeed.

Problem is, Streep is so good that her performance only magnifies one of the film’s biggest flaws — namely, director Nora Ephron’s failure to create two-dimensional husbands. In fairness, “Julie & Julia” is a movie about women, not men, and directors have pigeonholed women in these parts of decades. But Paul Child (Stanley Tucci minus his usual snark) in particular comes off like some sort of smiley angel. Perhaps this is an accurate depiction of his nature — any man who tolerated Julia Child for more than five-minute intervals had intestinal fortitude to spare — but where are the flaws, the humanity? Warts are verboten in such a heart-warmer, but they’d be a welcome addition.

Let’s get back to the good stuff, though. For much of its length “Julie & Julia” succeeds in charming viewers with the story of Julie Powell (the ever-delightful Amy Adams), a government worker who decides to make every recipe in Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” and write a blog about her exploits. What begins as a way to escape the strain of dealing with 9/11 victims becomes a journey toward creating something meaningful for Julie, even though she alienates her husband Eric (Chris Messina) in the process. Interspliced with this story is the real-life tale of how Julia Child, newly relocated to Paris in 1948, turned a cooking class into a career that revolutionized French cooking for American women.

Ephron relies on finesse and the interspliced plot method to connect the lives of Julie, a New Yorker dealing with 21st-century problems, and Julia, experiencing fine cuisine in post-World War II Paris. Julie and Julia never met in real life, so this reality demands such creative cinematic contortions from Ephron. The splicing works well enough to be convincing but not so well that we feel as though Julie and Julia share a real connection. Here, suspension of disbelief is a necessity, not a luxury.

The truth? For food cinematography (oh, Bœuf bourguignon, how marvelous thou art) and lead performances as touching as these, I’ll play along. Since this is a foodie film, special attention gets paid to the dishes. There are beauty shots aplenty of everything from sole meunière to pastries to cakes, the kind that almost communicate the life in the dishes as much as the flavor, and there’s a shot of Streep at work in the kitchen that feels like visual poetry, all feeling.

Which takes us back to Adams and Streep. Adams gets short-changed a bit here as Julie, whose story is affecting but not nearly as intriguing as that of the unconventional Julia Child. Ever the intuitive actress, though, Adams manages to squeeze more raw feeling from her part than a weaker actress could, letting us see how Julie’s project is a way to give her life meaning. We can’t help but cheer her on. It’s Streep, however, who commands our attention by creating a woman of intelligence, fearlessness and great passion. Child understood that to enjoy food was to embrace life. This, in the end, might be the force that makes “Julie & Julia” such a treat for the senses.

Grade: B-