It’s been wholly delightful to watch Meryl Streep’s late-career evolution into bankable comic actress, as it has reintroduced her talents to a whole new generation. (My 15-year-old sister may not know who Sophie chose, but she can tell you all about that devil and how she wears her Prada.) For those who come to Streep’s newer roles with the knowledge of her earlier, capital-D dramatic work, meanwhile, the joy of comic Meryl is twofold. We appreciate the consummate technical skill and delicately layered emotional texture she brings to (most of) these performances, using her signature talents to elevate a “lighter” role. Yet there’s also the thrill of watching Meryl Streep—award-bedecked Actress of a Generation—let her hair down and goof around. Even better, she always seems in on the joke, delighting in shucking her woman-of-a-thousand-accents reputation. Her gregarious, sly off-screen persona only heightens the feeling that funny Meryl somehow hews closer to the real Meryl, as if with these films this famed shape-shifter is taking us into her confidence.
The best of these roles—and I count her work in Adaptation and The Devil Wears Prada as among the finest, funniest performances of the decade—get their spark from this dynamic. In both films, Streep plays a fiercely talented professional woman at the top of her field; her abilities are unquestioned, but they also become the source of humor. Like the woman embodying her, Susan Orlean in Adaptation ultimately discards decorum and embraces her inner nut, running off with a dentally challenged botanist and briefly achieving stoned-out, toe-wiggling bliss. Devil’s Miranda Priestley pushes professionalism to comic extremes, but the formidable actress playing her gives Priestley’s imperious demands a kind of extratextual justification: if Meryl says jump, who wouldn’t say “How high”? That both performances lack the physical transformations seen in many of her roles (her fab steel-gray Prada coif notwithstanding) only underscores how foregrounding Streep herself deepens the pleasures of her persona riffing.
In some respects, Streep’s performance as chef Julia Child in Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia hearkens back to the roles that won her fame in the first place: embodying a famous woman through impeccable physical and vocal approximation. It’s no criticism of Streep’s superb mimicry, however, to say that the exuberance that drives this turn owes at least as much to the actress’s comic gifts as it does to the real-life Child. Click here to read the rest of Matt Connolly’s review of Julie and Julia.