Is Stanley Tucci the busiest actor in Hollywood? This year alone added five movies to his IMDB page with five more in the pipeline for 2014.
This weekend in Hunger Games: Catching Fire, he plays Caesar Flickerman, the elaborately coiffured host of The Hunger Games television broadcasts. Despite being disguised with wild wigs, fake teeth and plenty of bronzer, it is unmistakably Tucci, one of the most interesting actors working today.
He made his big screen debut in the 1985 gangster comedy Prizzi’s Honor followed by several years of dues-paying stage work and movie roles like Second Dock Worker in Who’s That Girl before landing recurring spots on Miami Vice and Wiseguy.
A succession of supporting roles lead to the one-two punch that made him a name actor. Producer Steven Bochco’s television drama Murder One cast Tucci as Richard Cross, a Machiavellian multi-millionaire accused of the strangulation of a 15-year-old girl.
The following year a much different part earned him an Independent Spirit Award nomination for best actor. In The Big Night he plays Secondo, owner of an Italian restaurant called Paradise. The place is slowly going broke but may get a boost from a visit by singer Louis Prima. If Prima shows up the restaurant will have a big night and be saved from bankruptcy.
It’s not only one of the greatest food movies ever made — you’ll want to go for risotto afterward — but it also features what Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers called “an unforgettable acting duet” between Tucci and Tony Shalhoub, who plays his temperamental chef brother, “that is as richly authentic as the food.”
Since then Tucci has played everything from villains — strangling a Supreme Court justice in The Pelican Brief — to a flamboyant nightclub manager in Burlesque, to the God of wine Dyonisius in Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters to Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Opposite just Meryl Streep alone he’s played everything from a gay art director in The Devil Wears Prada to Julia Child’s loving diplomat husband Paul in Julie & Julia.
In 2010 he received his first (but probably not last) Oscar nomination for his work in The Lovely Bones. He played the murderous Mr. Harvey, all twitchy movements and squeaky voice; he was Norman Bates without the overbearing mom.
“I don’t like to watch things about serial killers or kids getting hurt,” he said, “but this was something beyond that. It was an exploration of loss and hope.”
Julie & Julia isn’t a typical book adaptation, although it is based around two books. The story takes its lead from two very different tomes, one a blog inspired book by a self confessed “government drone by day, renegade foodie by night,” the other a classic by chef Julia Child. Bringing together the stories of Julie Powell, who made a name for herself on-line by blogging about her 2002 attempt to make all 536 recipes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking in just 365 days, and Julia Child’s coming of age in France in the 1950s seems like it shouldn’t work, but the mix and match of the two stories has resulted in one of the most delightful films of the year so far.
The contemporary story begins with Julie Powell (Amy Adams), a frustrated writer working as a temp at a government agency. Looking for a way to make her mark she hits on the idea of cooking her way through the seminal Julia Child cookbook on French food in one year, blogging as she goes. Turning the dial back fifty years we are then introduced to Julia Child (Meryl Streep) and her foreign diplomat husband Paul (Stanley Tucci) at the beginning of their life in France. “French people eat French food everyday,” a delighted Julia says on arrival. The stories mix and mingle, following the lives of these two women as they search for something to enhance their lives and find it in food.
Directed by Nora Ephron, a filmmaker who is occasionally pitch perfect—Sleepless in Seattle—and occasionally not—Bewitched—the movie has an awkward structure, but after a rocky start rights itself as the two, seemingly disparate stories come together thematically. As similarities emerge—both women are bored government workers with doting husbands who are looking for something to fulfill them—the movie’s flashback structure starts to make sense.
Either of these narratives could have carried the film on their own—although I found the Julia Child storyline more compelling—but bringing them together gives the story a depth I’m not sure the Julie Powell story could have achieved on its own.
At the forefront here is the performance of Meryl Streep as the indomitable Julia Childs. Standing 6’ 2” Childs, with her distinctive voice and formidable stature, is an easy target for mimicry. Dan Aykroyd’s bloody Saturday Night Live take-off on Julia is a classic—and one that she herself enjoyed, keeping a copy of it to show guests—so the trick for any actor playing her is to reach past the parody and find a real character. Streep does this, playing Childs with gusto, bringing out the real person beneath the character’s affectations. It’s the kind of performance the Academy loves, so look for it to be nominated at awards time.
Amy Adams is a bit more of a slow burn. Her mousy character gets bowled over in the early part of the film by Streep’s zesty performance, but manages to establish an interesting character by the time the credits roll.
Julie & Julia is an unexpectedly touching, uplifting story, unconventionally told, that will leave you feeling better when you leave the theater than you did when you went in.