(maybe some spoilers, but the food won't be)
There's a scene in Julie & Julia where Julie (the contemporary woman) is having lunch with her girlfriends and she's suddenly mortified at how grotesquely plastic they are, trying to "fit her in" to their schedules with their walls of PDAs and cell phones. Julie and her husband are in comparison pleasantly mild, normal people -- they don't even live in Manhattan! Commercial audiences are supposed to identify with them -- I've probably seen characters like Julie and her husband in dozens of 1990s and 2000s films. Yet over the course of the movie I slowly soured on them just as Julie soured on her overambitious friends. To paraphrase Julie herself, I wondered: is it OK to not like these people (Julie and especially her husband)? Is that what the film-maker intended?
I'd be interested in hearing what others think, but I think yes, it was what was intended. Or at least, the film can work on two levels: as a pure ode to cooking and food but also as a deeper comment on how insipid and derivative modern life can be, from our little micropublishings to the void, even to sex lives. And it points to a very simple one-word recipe for making it less so: joy.
Julia Child and her husband would almost be material for a full-length biopic, especially with the good acting and the Streep factor, so the whole second Julie story line is pure conceptual art -- with allowances made for the possibility that it was a commercial calculation to try to draw younger audiences. The risk pays off, the two threads are woven well.
You can practically tabulate the contrasts: Julia Child is all about joy and "freedom to"; Julie is all about "freedom from". Julie lives in Queens and feels trapped because she's not in Manhattan, even though she wouldn't be comfortable with the lifestyle that would presumably entail, either. If Julia were in Queens, of course, we'd see her shopping at some ethnic greengrocers and making strangers drop their guard on the A-train. Watching Julie struggle to channel her muse, it's all gentle fun, with some physical comedy, but there's certainly dramatic irony watching her misplaced determination and conceit at becoming a writer (by riding on Julia's coattails!).
Julie & Julia has some pointed things to say about ideal husbands. There's a world of difference between Julia Child's husband, whom we want to cheer -- not just because he defies our expectations that be will be a stolid 1950s male or chauvinist or milquetoast -- and Julie's husband, nothing culpably chauvinistic, but always seen just eating or loafing or providing a verbal veneer of support, a thick-skinned loser who's got it made and is ready at the first minor quarrel to walk out (!). In his own way, this guy is actually as bad as the DiCaprio character in Revolutionary Road and I wanted to throw tomatoes at him, if this were not a waste of good food. (I've become sensitized to movie portrayals of schlubs of all stripe. A man who never cooks is already highly suspicious to me, even if he's just celluloid.)
If I had one misgiving about this movie, it might be that the Julie side of the quotient (and by extension many members of the target audience) still might not have "got it" at the end, as a still star-struck Julie, having finished her derivative re-enactment of all of Julia's recipes, makes a Graceland-style pilgrimage to Julia's kitchen and deposits a perishable offering on the shrine to the chef she never met. The film-makers use this to set up another great segue, smooth as hollandaise, to a final Julia-in-the kitchen scene, but I have to wonder about what Julie is thinking.