*Julie & Julia (PG-13)
Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
It took 30 years, but Meryl Streep has done it: She's the queen of summer movies.
I know — the audacity, right? This is the time of year when youth is supposed to be served, yet here we have a Woman of a Certain Age crashing the party. A few years ago, she scored with The Devil Wears Prada; last year, she hit again with Mamma Mia! Now, Julie & Julia could prove definitively that flicks for adult women can hit triple-digit millions at the box office, even as temperatures flirt with triple digits.
Streep continues to delight in an effervescent turn as cooking legend Julia Child, whose biography comprises half of this fact-based trifle from writer/director Nora Ephron (You've Got Mail). We meet Julia in 1949 Paris, her new home with husband Paul (Stanley Tucci). Faced with long days, Julia enrolls in culinary classes at the famed Cordon Bleu, eventually leading to her cookbook-writing/TV-hosting fame.
Her counterpart is Julie Powell (Amy Adams), a would-be novelist in 2002 Manhattan who fields calls for post-9/11 assistance. Seeking her own release from monotony, she turns to cooking, launching a blog in which she'll chronicle preparing every recipe from Julia's seminal cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 365 days, testing the patience of her husband Eric (Chris Messina).
Ephron alternates between the stories, attempting to establish parallels between the heroines: career restlessness, relocation, birthday dinners. It's a narrative gamble, because the approach demands that the two stories prove equally charming, or risk an audience's impatience in returning to the "good" one.
On a certain level, it succeeds. Ephron knows how to craft clever dialogue and create a few exquisitely embarrassing situations for her protagonists. Adams continues to prove endearing, and there's an approachable arc to her efforts at finding self-confidence in her skills. Streep, meanwhile, does what she always seems to do: make inhabiting another person look effortless. Taking her cue from Julia's high-pitched trill and mop of curls, Streep turns her into a creature of boundless energy — and for an audience, that can become infectious.
But there's a fundamental problem with Julia's story: Her life wasn't particularly complicated. While Ephron acknowledges her quirks — most notably, the imposing height that contributed to making her a late-in-life bride who never had children — there's very little drama that she needs to confront. Those dramas that do arise — including Paul's involvement in the 1950s anti-communist investigations — don't feel organic to Julia's journey.
Julia's half of the film takes a typical movie biography style, and dampens it more with the predictable rhythms of a romantic comedy. As a result, the force of Streep's performance overwhelms a largely inert story. And even in the film's "Julie" portion, it's telling that the biggest laugh comes not from anything Ephron has written, but from a Saturday Night Live sketch in which Dan Aykroyd impersonates Julia Child.
Ephron also commits one major — even if historically accurate — mistake late in the film, when Julie hears about Julia's reaction to her blog. The information seems totally out of character with the Julia we've seen, inspiring viewers to wonder what's missing.
Streep is so engaging that, of course, we want to believe her version is the real deal. If she's got the charisma to rule the summer, maybe she can bring spice to a sometimes bland dish.