Julie and Julia Dir. Nora Ephron

[Columbia Pictures; 2009]

Nora Ephron is a puzzle. To describe her as that hoary ole riddle wrapped in an enigma would imply the ability to read more than one layer of her films. Alas, for the woman-centered writer and director (albeit one also known for her criticism of feminism), that’s not often the case. Still, she’s a contradiction: famous for her anti-romance, culinary-flavored skewering of her Watergate-star ex, Carl Bernstein (Heartburn), yet more often a sucker for the sap, as evidenced by Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail, and Michael. In her latest female-focused comedy Julie and Julia, which she both directed and adapted from blogger Julie Powell’s book Julie and Julia and Julia Child’s (and Alex Prud’homme’s) memoir My Life in France, Ephron may have finally gotten herself back in the good graces of the cultural elite -- and the feminists to whom she offered the flawed peace-offering Bewitched.

How did she accomplish this? Blame it on the reach and power of a now-well-embedded slow-food, organic, biodynamic, sustainably harvesting, locavore, sausage-making, canning, and frankly obsessed foodie culture -- and the fact that Julia Child is the closest thing we've got to a universally deified domestic goddess. The premise of Julie and Julia is also in sync with a postmodern foodie life: It pays tribute to the chefs of yore, their mastery of technique and craft, and reminds us that few people, including food writers, actually write recipes. Most instead rely on the tried and tested recipes of forebears, like Child, who in turn studied their own masters.

In Julie and Julia, as in life, Powell (Amy Adams) chose to study her master, Child, and document her findings the best way she knew how, as a frustrated, unpublished writer: by blogging. As cute as a button -- perhaps a mite too cute to bear much resemblance to the real Powell -- 30-something Brooklynite Julie works in a government office serving distressed 9/11 victims. By night, she’s undertaken the project of cooking her way through Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, tackling 524 recipes in 365 days, and blogging all about it. Amid all the anxiety of the burgeoning War on Terror, she finds a grounding comfort in the fact that she can throw butter and eggs together and always end up with something uncomplicated in its deliciousness.

But Ephron's real stroke of inspiration is to intertwine with Powell's tale the real-life story of Child -- restless and punchy, if not sleepless, in Paris -- who finds her calling in the kitchen. The director uses a host of cinematic tricks to make Streep appear as tall as the woman she portrays, and the actress plays Child even larger than life. Lovable, bubbly, and in the throes of a midlife sensual awakening with her husband (Stanley Tucci), Streep injects her Child with a joie de vivre that effectively translates into an irrepressible love of food -- and life. This is an especially challenging feat, considering we can’t actually taste the sole meuniere she cooks up.

Child’s work may have come together over the course of many years, rather than a single one, but Ephron makes the women's parallel lives work together, as each finds a sense of mastery. More importantly, both characters find their voice: be it developing, researching, and writing Mastering the Art of French Cooking or simply carefully following in the footsteps of another -- and, in the process, attracting an audience to her work. Now, what member of the cultural elite doesn’t dream of a book deal like Powell's, its accompanying contract as delectable and desirable as the flakiest tarte tatin? A film about writing and cooking, Julie and Julia is also a movie about women finding themselves -- a theme that wouldn’t have been beyond the pale in Ephron’s ’70s heyday.

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