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On Movies: 'Julie & Julia' serves up frothy confection of romance and life lessons

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 6, 2009 - Julie Powell (Amy Adams) is depressed, and understandably so. It's 2002 in downtown Manhattan, and the high-rise office building where Julie works overlooks the emptiness that, less than a year before, was the World Trade Center. Her clerical job involves dealing with angry or desperate people who are being displaced by reconstruction at the site of the tragedy.

Julie finds escape from her disheartening days in the evenings, cooking for herself and her husband in their Queens apartment. Her favorite cookbook is Julia Child's landmark "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," published in 1961. One day, Julie, an aspiring writer, and her husband, Eric (Chris Messina), come up with what turns out to be a wonderful idea: In her cramped kitchen, Julie will cook her way through all 524 recipes in Child's classic book. In a year. And write a blog about it. While keeping her day job.

After we meet Julie and Eric, the scene shifts, the colors on the screen darken, and we see a chrome-toothed Buick Roadmaster cruising down a cobblestone street. It's 1949, and we are in France with Julia Child and her loving husband, Paul, an American diplomat. The couple is played with endearing affection by Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci. "Julie and Julia" is a movie about love, and not just of food.

Julia is bored just being a housewife. She, too, loves to cook -- or at least she loves to eat, and sees cooking as a useful tool to that end. With too much time on her hands, she decides to enroll in the legendary Cordon Bleu cooking school. Julia, tall - she was 6'2" -- and forthright, her voice a forceful alto chirp, seems out of place among the more restrained, petite French. You keep expecting her to bump into people and break things; from time to time, she does, both physically and metaphorically.

As the two women learn to cook an ocean and half a century apart, the scene shifts back and forth between them. Writer-director Nora Ephron ("Sleepless in Seattle") links the two women by similarities in their lives; most importantly, they are deeply in love with their husbands and, despite the occasional tiff, their husbands adore them and support what they do.

In mid-20th-century France, Julia learns from the French how to make boeuf bourguignon or bone a duck, and in early 21st-century America Julie learns the same things from Julia. The movie has a wonderful way of overlapping itself, with past and future reinforcing each other in mood and tone, adding to the sweet tickle of romantic irony that writer-director Nora Ephron brings to the movie.

The film, an engaging, mostly light-hearted comedy, is based on two books (in addition to "Mastering the Art of French Cooking"). They are Julia Child's memoir "My Life in France" and "Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously" by Julie Powell. But there is never the sense we sometimes get with movies based on books -- much less three books -- of the filmmaker trying to cram too much story into too little time. "Julie and Julia" is a pleasant diversion, with a few more serious moments, that ends about when we would want it to end, and in a charming way that plays off the time-shifting of its basic structure.

Almost inevitably, the comic scenes with Meryl Streep seeming to embody Julia Child, dead-set on her goal almost to the point of solipsism, stay longer in the memory than those with Amy Adams. And Streep's performance, as usual if not as always, transcends impersonation, and she brings a warmth and vulnerability to the role of Julia Child that rounds off the character. But Amy Adams also gives a bright and believable performance as Julie, who learns about life while learning to cook.

Opens Friday, Aug. 7

In the Loop

If the essential sweetness of "Julie and Julia" leaves you with a yen for something more acidic, something sharp to cleanse the synapses, the political comedy "In the Loop" might be just the ticket. It is a relentless funny, astonishingly foul-mouthed, unquestionably mean-spirited British satire on the debate leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The movie is set in London and Washington, but we never see Tony Blair, George W. Bush or Dick Cheney, the "deciders." Instead, we watch a series of arguments, nasty in tone and clearly slanted towards war, among upper-level bureaucrats and secondary national politicians from both countries. They are putting together a position paper for a United Nations Security Council vote on what to do about Iraq and its presumed weapons of mass destruction. In the course of the trans-oceanic wrangling, no back goes unstabbed.

At the beginning, hapless British Minister of International Development (Tom Hollander) is asked in a television interview what he thinks the chances are for war in Iraq, and he stumblingly replies that, in his decidedly humble opinion, such a war is "unforeseeable." After Prime Minister Blair's nasty-tempered communications director (Peter Capaldi) is through excoriating the minister, the poor man stumbles forth to the media and stutters that "unforeseeable" could mean "possible" or even "likely." Or neither.

In preparation for the Security Council meeting, the Brits go to Washington, where they end up with people much like themselves, only American. A very few men and women on both sides seem to be essentially people of good will, and one American general (James Gandolfini), as ill-tempered and brutally funny as he is, appears to be a man of reason and integrity. At least, he seems to be the only person in what is now a gaggle of over-achievers who understands that war involves killing people, not all of them in the uniform of the enemy.

In the end, the war that the British minister thought "unforeseeable" was, as we know, inevitable. Indeed, it's doubtful that the whole venomous debate we have been watching for an hour and 45 minutes mattered at all, beyond giving some highly educated, highly motivated, high-level bureaucrats and politicians something to keep themselves occupied. In the end, some of the characters come out looking better (or less bad) than others, but none of them emerges even remotely covered in glory.

Opens, Friday, Aug. 7

Harper Barnes,  the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies.