By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
One too many cooks and books don't spoil Julie & Julia but certainly load too much on director Nora Ephron's plate.
Her movie gets its title and too much inspiration from Julie Powell's blog and later book during a year in her feeble life making 524 recipes perfected by culinary icon Julia Child, whose My Life in France chronicled an indomitable spirit.
If they had ever met, Julia might order Julie to tend to matters outside the kitchen first — and Ephron to stick with the more savory subject.
In every regard, Child's story trumps Powell's. Ephron insists upon flipping between them. Returning to Meryl Streep's spot-on impersonation of the late, lumbering chef with her constantly thrilled, trilling voice is always preferred. Julia's story boasts the finer complements: a wonderfully droll performance by Stanley Tucci as husband Paul, the joys of discovering postwar French culture apart from cooking, and a life worth telling.
However, Julie's depressing job as a post-9/11 support staffer, a bland husband and their cramped Queens apartment get equal attention. Amy Adams plays Julie, an uphill struggle for the actor's spunky likability. She's mostly stuck with welled eyes and kitchen pratfalls, a rare occasion seeming replaceable in a role.
If any film ever needed a fantasy clash of past and present, it's this one. Ephron has a chance late in the movie, when Julie learns that aging Julia said unkind things about her blog in an interview (apparently seeing then what Ephron is blind to now). How about a dream sequence uniting the women in Paris for wine and Julie's whining? Julia would set her straight, and possibly the movie.
Instead, Streep's uncanny performance never returns, at a point when Ephron's previous parallel stories in Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail converged. The filmmaker remains faithful to a fan's gimmick that even the object of adulation dissed. We're left with resolving Julie's marital problem that doesn't seem pressing, and whether she'll ever debone a duck.
Like Julia, I'd prefer to look at the bright side of circumstances. In other words, any scene set outside the United States with Streep and Tucci creating a marriage unlike many in movies. Paul's urbane personality perfectly meshes with Julia's earthiness, sharing quirks and support with the other, relishing their odd blend. She towers over him yet with doting posture; he gazes up at her lovingly and sometimes lustfully.
Why a diehard romanticist like Ephron wouldn't focus more on the Childs, amid such lovely Parisian period design, is puzzling. The Powells are like a parsley garnish taking up half the plate.
Which leads to the food in Julie & Julia that sadly doesn't make mouths water as other culinary-themed films have done. It isn't enough to watch an exquisite gourmet dinner being served and guests moaning with delight. Food is merely a prop here, not an inanimate character as memorable as flesh-and-blood actors.
Ephron could've asked Tucci for advice, after his 1996 gem Big Night made movie food a visceral delight; the ingredients and precision devoted to a sumptuous timpano revealed much about both the recipe and chefs, and preparing a simple omelet spoke volumes for wordless actors. Julie & Julia begs for such sensual detail.
No doubt foodies will gravitate to Julie & Julia, possibly finding more to appreciate through predisposition to the topic. But proof is in the pots de creme. Ephron's movie is one half briskly whisked heavy cream and the other half Cool Whip. Even fast food junkies can taste that difference.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs. tampabay.com/movies.