When an actor plays a real-life character we know and love, we always hope for verisimilitude, for body movements that capture the physical essence of a person we feel we know pretty well, for line readings that conjure the tone and timber of a particular voice and its speech patterns (that is, for line readings that make us forget there's such a thing as "line readings"). A good actor can usually give us an exacting impersonation, a strictly followed recipe with every ingredient appropriately calibrated, and sometimes that's good enough. But watching Meryl Streep as Julia Child in "Julie & Julia" -- as she only semi-successfully flips an omelette, in a re-created clip from Child's seminal '60s-era television show "The French Chef"; as she stands at a table with her classmates at Le Cordon Bleu, her elbows crooked jauntily and a little awkwardly behind her; as she sits down to dinner with her husband, Paul (Stanley Tucci), the two of them having so much to say to each other that they sometimes chatter with their mouths full -- goes beyond recipe reading. Streep isn't playing Julia Child here, but something both more elusive and more truthful -- she's playing our idea of Julia Child. When Streep's Julia nearly loses that omelette on TV, she pooh-poohs the possible dangers of dropping food on the floor: "You're alone in the kitchen. Whoooooooo's to see?" The line, and the way Streep draws it out, is just one measure of the intimacy of this performance. We're not observers here, but conspirators: We know exactly where the food has been, and we're not telling.
"Julie & Julia," directed by Nora Ephron, is only partly a movie about Julia Child. Ephron adapted the script from two sources: Child's posthumously published 2006 memoir (co-written with Alex Prud'homme) "My Life in France" and Julie Powell's entertaining, soufflé-light memoir -- from which the movie gets its name -- a recounting of the year Powell spent cooking every recipe in Child's 1961 classic "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." (Powell's book got its start as a blog hosted by Salon.) In "Julie & Julia," Powell (played by an exhaustingly perky Amy Adams) toils by day as a low-level government employee but, in her evenings at home in Queens, N.Y., gives her life meaning by wrestling with the challenges of boning duck carcasses, murdering lobsters and making perfect aspic (a food that, perfect or not, practically no one wants to eat anymore). In between recipes, she squabbles and cuddles with her long-suffering husband, Eric (Chris Messina), commiserates about her life troubles with her surly friend Sarah (Mary Lynn Rajskub) and sits down at the computer to blog about it. Through it all, we wait for the payoff, and eventually get it: She jumps up and down when, after her blog takes off and gets media exposure, she starts getting offers from agents and book publishers.
Contrast that with the other subject of "Julie & Julia": A strapping, cheerful 6-foot-plus California girl (and former OSS secretary) who, in the late 1940s, moves to Paris with her shorter, much beloved husband and immediately falls in love with her new country and its food, embarking on an adventure that will ultimately change the way Americans think about food, as well as provide a genius flash of inspiration for Dan Aykroyd. Which story sounds more interesting to you? (Or, as Julia would put it, "To yooooooooooou?")
The miracle here is that Ephron, a filmmaker who in the past has shown a gift for making clumsy, resolutely un-subtle pictures like "Bewitched" (and who, worse yet, gave us both "You've Got Mail" and "Sleepless in Seattle," two monster hits of the '90s that helped hasten the downhill slide of contemporary romantic comedies), has managed to fashion these two inequitable stories into a breezy entertainment. "Julie & Julia" is wobbly: I found myself groaning a little whenever the action would shift to present-day Queens and perking up considerably when Ephron would once again return to the boisterous adventures of that great, tall gal in France. In places, Alexandre Desplat's score makes Ephron's job harder than it needs to be: Desplat has written some beautiful scores (most notably that for "The Painted Veil"), but here, as Julie does things like reminisce about her mother's version of Julia's boeuf bourguignon, he resorts to twinkly piano stuff that hangs in the air with the heaviness of Glade.
Cut to France -- please. And thankfully, Ephron shows a surprising degree of grace at navigating us through the movie's shifts between eras and places. If nothing else, the movie's clockwork rhythms give us something to look forward to: When Adams' excessive chirpiness and slight whininess start getting to us, we know there's always Julia, waiting for us in France. When we first meet her, she's arriving in Paris with Paul, to whom she's been married just a few years, fluttering and cooing and mangling Français with so much joy and enthusiasm that it's clear she's found her spiritual home. Julia, like her Queens counterpart Julie, has reached a point in her life where she needs to find something "to do." First she tries hat making, and we get a glimpse of a giantess comically fumbling with delicate scraps of tulle. But eventually, she recognizes that the one thing she really likes to do is eat. "I'm growing in front of you!" she trills at Paul during one of their dinnertime conversations, which leads her to try cooking school. She enrolls at the École le Cordon Bleu, where she learns that she can't properly cut an onion. She must also stare down the school's vinegary, imperious owner, Madame Bressart (Joan Juliet Buck).
But it's not long before Julia gets the hang of cutting those onions, and her French gets better too: Or at least, as Paul puts it, because she's the kind of person who could "bring out the best in a polecat," she decides the French are the most wonderful people in the world, and they grudgingly return the compliment. Streep's performance finds its effortless counterpart in Tucci's. As Paul, he's an appreciative foil -- he manages to be a strong, definable presence even as he yields most of the spotlight to her. Streep's performance may be potent, but it doesn't overwhelm those of her fellow actors: At one point Jane Lynch shows up as Julia's equally outsize sister, Dorothy, and the two tumble into each other's arms at the train station like two wandering goonybirds who have found each other at last.
Ephron does the smart thing in "Julie & Julia" and lets Streep carry the day, with a minimum of embellishment. Streep is too often praised for her ability to master an accent, which is evidence of her discipline. But a good performance has to offer more than just proof of how much work you've put into it, and Streep is always at her best when she makes it all look easy, instead of advertising how difficult it is. Her exacting, actressy turn in last year's "Doubt" is an example of the worst kind of Streep performance. What she does here, in its lightness and outright glee, is the best kind.
Streep uses her gift for mimicry to make the link between Julia as pop-culture presence and human being. Just listening to Streep is pure joy: She gets the way Julia's voice resembled the unself-conscious chortling of an extremely happy bird. And Ephron and Streep both trust their instincts in one of the movie's best scenes: Julia's inability to have children is handled in one brief, essentially wordless moment between her and her husband. That moment, like much of the movie around it, is about the business of getting on with life, and of cooking as one of the most pleasurable ways to sustain it. That's as true in Queens as it is in Paris, which was Julia Child's point all along.