Meryl Streep, in 'Julie & Julia'

Dir. Nora Ephron
(2009, PG-13, 123 min)
★ ★ ½

My food metaphors are rusty, but I’ll give it a shot. Julie & Julia is sweet. Too sweet. It’s apple pie dipped in honey, drizzled in caramel, and injected with high fructose corn syrup. What it needs is a touch of the tart, salty, or savory. Written and directed by sugar specialist Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail), with an extra dollop of cutesy meringue by composer Alexandre Desplat, it makes Chocolat look like No Country for Old Men.

It misses two important opportunities. Telling the true stories of blogger Julie Powell (Amy Adams) and her culinary inspiration Julia Child (Meryl Streep), it takes place both in post-9/11 New York City and post-World War II France, yet the only hint we get of either tragedy is a brief early scene where government desk jockey Powell fields complaints from the families of World Trade Center victims, but that functions more as exposition than to add any depth to the narrative.

Why sideline the cultural context, when it could have added richness? One of my favorite films of last year, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, also starring Amy Adams, achieved its bittersweet beauty by layering screwball farce over the sober backdrop of Britain’s entry into World War II. The laughs meant more because we knew how much was really at stake.

The modern-day Julie Powell scenes are the more problematic. Adams, who I think hung the moon in most of her films, isn’t used well by Ephron, who plays up the actress’s chirpy brightness instead of playing against it (as Enchanted did with its modern irony) or adding texture to it (as did Junebug and Miss Pettigrew). Even when Julie has a self-described “meltdown” over a failed meal, the film always insists on her doggone adorableness.

She has a husband (Chris Messina) who supports her graciously during her attempt to cook every recipe from Julia Child’s book Mastering the Art of French Cooking (and he should be gracious, since he gets to eat the results). Eventually they have a big fight, but there’s no buildup to it and little follow-through, as if the film is merely filling its quota of dramatic tension.

The Julia Child scenes are better. Meryl Streep brings vivacity and joy to the woman, who didn’t learn to cook until she moved to France with her husband Paul (Stanley Tucci) on business for the US State Department. There are brief moments that suggest the good movie that might have been made just about her. She married her husband at 34 and never had children; a scene of her receiving a pregnancy announcement is a fine piece of acting by her and Tucci. Julia demonstrates left-leaning political views that conflict with her father’s, and under Sen. Joe McCarthy’s reign of terror Paul comes under investigation. These story details are presented offhand, as afterthoughts, and I wanted more.

Great attention is lavished upon great food that looks so delicious I want not only to eat it, but to cook it too. The movie, however, needed better seasoning.