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‘Julie & Julia’

More Julia, less Julie. Or, better yet: more Julia, no Julie.

That would be a far more succulent cinematic recipe than the one "Julie & Julia" follows.

The movie grants equal billing to two utterly unequal characters — and gives top billing to the wrong one.

No disrespect to Julie Powell, whose memoir "Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously" chronicles her quest to work her way through Julia Child’s "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" — a landmark cookbook that showed American cooks a world beyond meatloaf and TV dinners.

It’s just that Child is such a fascinating character — a 6-foot-2 bundle of joie de vivre whose journey took her from Pasadena to Paris via China and Ceylon, where she met her future husband while working for the U.S. spy agency that became the CIA.

And no disrespect to Amy Adams, who plays Powell with perfectly perky persistence, but when you’ve got Meryl Streep playing Julia Child, cutting away to follow someone else’s story line — anyone else’s story line — seems downright confounding, if not quite sacrilegious.

Yet "Julie & Julia" does exactly that, straining to equate its two protagonists’ journeys despite the fact that Child’s is so much more compelling than Powell’s.

Even so, the contrived concept works better than it has any right to — in part because of writer-director Nora Ephron’s affinity for parallel narratives, as exemplified by her 1993 directorial breakthrough, "Sleepless in Seattle."

Despite the differences in setting — post-world War II Paris vs. post-Sept. 11 New York — Ephron maintains the same light, almost sitcom-style approach, emphasizing their shared storybook qualities while downplaying their resemblance to reality.

In one story, we meet frustrated writer Julie (Adams), who spends her days answering anguished telephone calls from Sept. 11 victims — and her nights trying to adjust to life in the underwhelming Queens apartment she shares with her editor husband, Eric ("Vicky Cristina Barcelona’s" Chris Messina).

When one of Julie’s friends starts a blog about her life, and Julie starts bemoaning her lack of success, Eric suggests she write a blog herself. And so she does, focusing on her attempt to cook her way through the hundreds of recipes in Child’s "Mastering the Art of French Cooking."

Meanwhile, in 1948 Paris, Julia Child has arrived with her urbane husband, Paul (the gracefully understated Stanley Tucci, Streep’s "Devil Wears Prada" co-star), who’s just begun a stint at the U.S. Embassy. Julia’s a "rather loud and unserious Californian," as she described herself at the time. And Paul, who clearly adores every inch of her towering frame, wouldn’t have it any other way.

Once she enrolls at Paris’ famed Cordon Bleu cooking school and discovers the wonders of French cuisine, however, Julia gets serious — serious enough to launch her soon-to-be-legendary career as an all-American French chef.

Shifting smoothly between its contrasting settings — gritty present-day New York and magical Paris of the past — "Julie & Julia" also contrasts Julia Child’s expansive, can-do attitude with Julie Powell’s desperate determination. It’s almost as if Julie hopes that, by following Julia Child’s recipes, she’ll be able to duplicate her charmed life as well.

Of course, Julia Child didn’t lead a totally charmed life, but except for a few fleeting references (McCarthy Era suspicions that threaten to derail Paul’s diplomatic career, the fact that Mr. and Mrs. Child couldn’t have children), you’d never know it, so breezy and blissful is the movie’s depiction of their lives.

And when Julie and Eric face a few rough patches, especially when her devotion to her cookathon threatens to become an obsession, there’s never any doubt that all will end happily in "Julie and Julia’s" sunny world. No fallen souffles at this feel-good banquet, merci beaucoup.

Once you get past sighing over what might have been, however, there’s no denying "Julie & Julia" provides some pleasingly diverting moments.

Most of them take place in the "Julia" half of the movie, but Adams (who actually got to act alongside Streep in last year’s "Doubt") lightens Julie’s self-absorption with welcome pluck.

As you might expect, however, Streep provides the best reason to catch "Julie & Julia," her third movie with Ephron. (Although it’s the first time Ephron’s directed Streep; Mike Nichols directed Ephron’s scripts for 1983’s "Silkwood" and 1986’s "Heartburn," which Ephron adapted from her own semiautobiographical novel.)

Streep, not surprisingly, nails all of Child’s familiar mannerisms, from her robust, ground-glass voice to her infectiously ebullient manner. And while she doesn’t quite disappear inside the role — we never really forget it’s Meryl Streep doing Julia Child — catching her act proves almost as delicious as sampling Child’s beef bourguignon.

Perhaps someday, someone will do a prequel that keeps the spotlight solely where it belongs: on the amazing Julia Child. Alas, Streep and Tucci won’t be able to reprise their roles — but that’s the way the French bread crumbles.

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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