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My thought on today

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-

“(500) Days of Summer”…

… and “Julie & Julia” and “The Goods”! This weekend!

That is all.

2009: Movies to Watch

Alas, the Oscars have come and gone. If you worship at the altar of Stephen Colbert, chances are you were not surprised by the outcome. I know I wasn’t. Check out my TV if you don’t believe me. You’ll find it refreshingly free of dents, dings, cracks and scratches. No foreign objects were harmed during The Really Big Show and, praise be to Will Scarlett O’Hara, I don’t have to make good on my promise to move to Canada. (Heath, I had your back … even though I generally don’t stick up for people dumb enough to mix Oxycontin and, you know, any other painkiller ever invented ever.)

But now I need a little something to lift me out of my post-Oscar funk. And what better way to forget about the past than charging headlong into the future? So here’s a treatise (more like a random sampling) of the 2009 movies I’m jumpier than a virgin at a prison rodeo to see:

  • Sunshine Cleaning (March 13) — Like anyone else nerdy enough to seek out IFC films, I fell in love with Amy Adams in Junebug, where I became convinced an actress who could make me love a character that cheerful and perky can do anything. She elevates any film she’s in, so imagine my excitement at the prospect of seeing her paired with the divine Emily Blunt, who stole every scene from Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada. If any two actresses can pull off a comedy about two sisters who start a business cleaning up violent crime scenes, it’s these two. Sign me up.
  • The Last House on the Left (March 13) — There’s only one reason to see “Last House”: to compare it to the supremely unnerving, gripping and violent 1972 classic directed by Wes Craven. The original gets my vote as one of the most disturbing films ever made — the top spot goes, of course, to Chaos — so I have bargain-basement hopes for the remake, particularly because the most famous actor in the whole movie is Monica Potter, who’s made a career of playing vanilla characters in B movies. If it’s crap, I’m pulling for a Chernobyl-styled failure.
  • I Love You, Man (March 20) — Know how I know there’s some sort of higher power? Because Jason Segel finally gets the coveted spot as Paul Rudd’s fake best friend/wannabe best man in I Love You, Man. Finally, people are starting to see what so many of us saw from the beginning (for Segel, Freaks and Geeks; for Rudd, Clueless): Segal and Rudd are supremely gifted comedic actors who deserve to headline their own movies. Toss in Rashida Jones (who had a career before The Office, people) and I’m already whipping out my AmEx and logging on to Fandango.
  • Adventureland (March 27) — I’m a sucker for a good coming-of-age movie, especially when it takes place in a theme park populated by the likes of Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader. Adventureland, written by Greg Mottola (one of the brilliant minds behind Undeclared), is shaping up to be a kinder, gentler, more sophisticated Superbad. Newbie Jessie Eisenberg has a pleasingly naive William Miller quality about him, and I’m thrilled to see Freaks and Geeks grad Martin Starr (that’s Bill “You Cut Me Off Mid-Funk” Haverchuck for those not in the know) back. Add a Sno Cone and a bag of cotton candy and I’ll be in heaven.
  • The Soloist (April 24) — The fact that this movie has been shelved for more than a year worries me not. Why? Because this movie — about a journalist (Robert Downey Jr.) who befriends a homeless, brilliantly talented musician (Jamie Foxx) — has almost limitless potential. Downey Jr. is on fire these days, and Foxx continues to expand on the promise and skill he showed in Ray and Collateral. And, of course, don’t forget about Catherine Keener, a fine actress relegated to tiny bit parts. Color me excited.
  • Terminator Salvation (May 21) — I know what you’re thinking: Enough with the Terminator franchise already! I’d be inclined to agree, since I barely watched the original … and the one after that … and the one after that … and the one — well, you get the idea. But this Terminator stars none other than Batman himself, the profanity-spewing Mickey-Rourke-in-his-tender-years wannabe. Yes, post-Batman he’s become a prima donna, but Bale brings his all to every role he plays (did you see El Maquinista?). Hell, he reinvented Batman; I suspect he could do the same for John Connor.
  • Drag Me to Hell (May 29) — A horror movie starring a kinda-sorta-funny guy (Justin Long) and a talented but largely unfamous actress (Alison Lohman) about a supernatural curse. Does it get less original or more derivative than this? Hey, the plot description isn’t what sold me on this; it’s the fact that Sam Raimi — who had a fantastic career as a comic-horror cult filmmaker before the Spiderman series — is directing. He’s a superhero of a director, someone who can do horror and comedy and action. If Drag Me contains 1/16th of the pluck and wit that the Evil Dead films had, Raimi’s going down in my book as one of my favorite directors.
  • The Maiden Heist (May 29) — A museum heist involving: Marcia Gay Harden. Morgan Freeman. William H. Macy. Christopher Walken. Together. In. One. Movie. ‘Nuff said.
  • Public Enemies (July 1) — Gangster movies are a dime a dozen these days, thanks in part to the great but interminable American Gangster. This year’s high-promise gangster pic is Public Enemies, a story about the Feds’ attempt to bring down gangsters John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) and Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum). With Depp, Christian Bale and Frenchie Marion Cotilliard in the mix, this is a recipe for greatness (Denzel, eat your heart out).
  • Funny People (July 31) — Call me crazy (it’s been suggested), but I can’t think of one good reason not to see a movie where Adam Sandler plays a dying comedian who takes a newbie (Seth Rogen) under his wing. Sandler has proven he can do subtle comedy and drama just fine. Even Rogen has his moments of levity (I still say his sex scene with Elizabeth Banks is one of the sweetest and best I’ve ever seen). The trick will be finding the right tone, pitched somewhere between Little Miss Sunshine and Reign Over Me. (Added bonus: There’s the potential to see Seth Rogen cry onscreen. Can he do it?)
  • Julie & Julia (Aug. 7) — Amy Adams and Meryl Streep in the same movie? What is this, Doubt with flatware, baking soda and a cast-iron skillet? Hardly. I’ve got huge, bursting hopes for this film about a kitchen novice (Adams) who decides to cook every recipe penned by Julia Child (Streep, natch) in her book “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Adams and Streep were stellar together in Doubt, so I suspect this pairing — here in a much lighter, more comic setting — will be equally fantastic. And I never turn up my nose at a movie where Stanley Tucci and Jane Lynch show up in the supporting cast. C’est magnifique.
  • Jennifer’s Body (Sept. 18) — Can a violent black comedy written by Diablo Cody about a possessed, homicidal cheerleader (Megan Fox, who’s easy on the eyes and has crack comic timing) who offs male classmates be anything other than stupendous? No, no, a thousand times no, I say! Cody’s got an ear for whip-smart dialogue, and director Karyn Kusama has assembled a great team of actors — including the snarkastic Adam Brody, Cynthia Stevenson and Allison Janney — sure to make this Heathers for the Bring It On set. Rah. Totally.
  • Sherlock Holmes (Dec. 25) — The truth: I’ve been a RDJr. groupie since Less Than Zero, so I’ll watch any movie he makes and probably rave about it (I make an exception for Only You). Because, you see, he keeps taking these larger-than-life characters — Ironman/Tony Stark, Charlie Chaplin, Col. Lincoln Osiris, Dito, Harry Lockhart — and making them flawed, vulnerable and funny. He seems perfectly cast in every part, much the same way Roger Ebert said Frances McDormand does, and it would seem elementary that he’ll do a smash-up job playing the ever-droll Sherlock Holmes. And the fact that Guy Ritchie’s directing, well, that’s just icing.