In losing herself in the larger-than-life Julia, awkward except when wielding whisk like scepter, Streep physically conveys the transformation and triumph of a lost woman who finds her vocation. She is transcendent.
Yes, Julie & Julia is a double portrait of women who discover their power in whipping shallot reduction and wine into submission. But it's also a movie about food as sex (think of prep as the foreplay), about marriage, friendship, and those recipes for personal and domestic happiness that don't come in books.
Even if you don't give a shiitake mushroom about food, there's much to savor in this lively comedy with dramatic aftertastes.
Intercutting scenes from the lives of both figures (gleaned from Child's My Life in France and Powell's Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen, the movie spans more than a decade in Child's career but only a year in Powell's.
Ephron often jumps between parallel narrative tracks that ultimately converge. Previously she did this in her screenplay for Rob Reiner's When Harry Met Sally . . . and for her own Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail. If the two-track structure works less successfully in J&J it's because a) the tracks don't converge and b) Julia is a fully formed figure, and Julie an unfinished woman.
Still, there are piquant contrasts between Child, who moved from the States to Paris in 1948, and Powell, who moved from Manhattan to Queens in 2002.
Child, who had always worked, followed her husband, Paul (Stanley Tucci, brilliant and wry), to his State Department posting in Paris. She is a stoic looking for meaningful work. She greets adversity with a shrug and a smile. When life hands her a lemon, she makes lemon-caper sauce.
Powell, a promising Amherst grad who believes she is destined for better things than working in a 9/11 relief agency, worries that she has not achieved enough. She greets adversity with a whine and a whimper. While Adams is superb, something about Powell's moaning takes a little of the air out of Ephron's souffle.
Julia cooks because she is a sensualist and food gives her pleasure, second only to that of sex. Julie cooks because cooking gives her a measure of control over her disordered and disappointing life.
In these contrasts, Ephron gently implies the difference between the pioneer and the settler. Still, the way Ephron structures her unapologetic work of heroine-worship shows how Julia inspires Julie - and how Julia and Paul Child's marriage inspires us all.
Atmospherically shot by cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt, the film is even more beautifully cast and presented.
Streep and Tucci (reunited from The Devil Wears Prada) perform a comic duet with timing and gestures as impeccable as singers in a Mozart opera. Adams and Chris Messina (as Powell's husband, Eric) are as nicely paired as toast and marmalade.
Frances Sternhagen is a hoot as Joy of Cooking scribe Irma Rombauer, ditto Jane Lynch as Julia's rangy sister, Dorothy.
Ephron, who has not had a success since You've Got Mail, achieves a perfect balance of look and sound. From Alexandre Desplat's puckish score to Mark Ricker's lived-in art direction to Ann Roth's unshowy shirtmaker dresses, the elements serve to develop, rather than distract from, the characters.
Ephron is an astute observer of how technology reshapes social intercourse. She made one of the first films about e-mail, You've Got Mail; J&J may be the first about blogging.
Read about culinary consultant Susan Spungen, who grew up in Huntingdon Valley and was food editor of Martha Stewart Living magazine for a dozen years, and try your hand at the recipe for Boeuf Bourguignon.
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or firstname.lastname@example.org Read her blog, Flickgrrl, at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/