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Meryl Streep shines as Julia Child in new film 'Julie & Julia'

Julie & Julia

(PG-13)

3 out of 4 stars

Adapting a single book into a movie is no mean feat. Condensing two books into one film is next to impossible and something that's just begging for failure. Against all odds, writer/director Nora Ephron manages to pull it off here, but not without a few narrative hiccups.

Since bounding out of the blocks with the winning one-two punch of "This is My Life" and "Sleepless in Seattle," Ephron's career has been a slow and painful downward spiral that reached rock-bottom in 2005 with "Bewitched." Generally a better writer ("Silkwood," "Heartburn," "When Harry Met Sally...") than director, Ephron's helming skills have finally reached full maturity with "Julie & Julia."

Jumping back and forth between two time frames that are 50 years apart, Ephron's film is structured much like "The Godfather II" with murder and deceit being replaced with kitchen utensils and the pen. If you're a writer or a foodie (or both), you're likely to enjoy it even more.

For the third time, Meryl Streep plays a character (Julia Child) written for her by Ephron and as usual, Streep is superb. If you've ever seen reruns of Child's cooking shows, you know she is a ripe target for over-the-top lampooning, yet Streep resists, even though she's stated in interviews she's based part of her performance on Dan Aykroyd's 1978 Child "SNL" skit.

Sharing the lead with Streep yet never appearing with her on-screen is fellow "Doubt" Oscar-nominee Amy Adams as New York resident Julie Powell.

During the day, Julie works as an insurance agent dealing with the families of the Sept. 11 attack victims - a stressful and thankless job. Powell is also a woman about to hit 30 without much to show for it. Admitting she never finishes anything she starts, Julie tells her almost-too-understanding husband Eric (Chris Messina) she's going to make all 512 recipes found in Child's French cookbook in the space of a year. He suggests she ought to blog about her experience - something he later regrets. In more ways than one, Julie's quest takes a heavy toll.

Back in early '50s Paris, Child and her diplomat husband Paul (Stanley Tucci, Streep's co-star in "The Devil Wears Prada") are leading a comfortable yet boring life. A ball of energy who thrived on constant activity, Child elbowed her way into the lofty "Cordon Bleu" cooking school, a strict boy's club institution.

After graduating, Child accepted an offer from two French women to write the English language version of what would end up being the landmark "Mastering the Art of French Cooking."

When Ephron and her characters stick with the creative and food aspects, the movie is impossible to resist. This is one film where you should either eat well before you go or plan to do so immediately afterward. Credit needs to be lavished on the film's food stylist Susan Spungen for making sure all of the dishes are aesthetically perfect (or not so when called for).

In an attempt to amp up the dramatic quotient, Ephron includes political and marital woe subplots that are just marginally interesting and only succeed in slowing the already iffy momentum. An 11th hour scenario suggesting a possible meeting of the title characters is introduced yet is left mysteriously dangling.

Watching the creative process unfold within two different disciplines is the draw here and Ephron never strays from it for too long at any point during the film. Like Julie, Ephron messes up a bit along the way yet eventually emerges victorious. (Sony/Columbia)