I instinctively steered clear of Elizabeth Gilbert’s autobiographical Eat Pray Love because its blend of travel guide and self-help book didn’t appeal to me.
Nothing I’ve seen in the movie version has led me to feel otherwise, but I suspect that lovers of the book will be satisfied. They have been given an expensive, handsomely mounted, and, from what I’ve been told, extremely faithful adaptation that stars none other than the Artist Formerly Known as the Biggest Movie Star on the Planet herself: Julia Roberts.
The story starts as journalist Liz (Roberts) is having something of a spiritual crisis. She is married to a directionless man-child (Billy Crudup) and feels unfulfilled by the house she so meticulously decorated for them. On an assignment in Bali, she meets with a medicine man (Hadi Subiyanto) who tells her that she will remarry, lose all of her money (but get it all back), and find spiritual balance. It’s enough to set her on a journey of self-discovery—first, by leaving the husband and jumping straight into the arms of a hippie-type actor played by James Franco (this relationship, meant to be significant to the film, is in fact woefully underdeveloped); then, by venturing on a yearlong trip around the world.
In Italy (the “Eat” section), she feasts on amazing spaghetti carbonara and proscuitto with fresh figs and Neapolitan pizza (“I’m having a relationship with my pizza,” she gushes, taking a bite), makes good friends (all beautiful, natch), and wanders ancient ruins, contemplating the mutability of existence. This is the kind of film where the flat Liz rents has no hot water (she’s slumming!) but also has gorgeous hardwood floors and a flower-filled balcony that overlooks the streets of Rome.
In India (“Pray”), she goes to an ashram and meets a wily recovering alcoholic (the always welcome Richard Jenkins), who has been there long enough to give Liz advice on finding her inner voice.
Finally, in Bali (“Love”), she meets back up with the medicine man and falls for a warm-hearted and sexy Brazilian (thinking woman’s hottie Javier Bardem), who, like her, has been hurt and is reluctant to take the leap.
For the most part, I found Liz’s journey and life lessons uninteresting. I mean, yeah, it’s nice that a wealthy woman can afford to drop out of society for a year and find herself. And it’s nice (for her) that she met beautiful people and ate beautiful food and landed herself a beautiful man, but what are we supposed to take from this? The movie tries to make the point that if you open yourself up to life’s experience, wonderful things can happen to you. True enough. But it’s not like Liz really earned any of this enlightenment—she didn’t sacrifice, she just indulged.
(In case you care to go on a similar quest, the producers would like to call your attention to the Eat Pray Love candles, the Eat Pray Love herbal teas, and the Eat Pray Love designer clothing—all available at a store near you!)
Having Roberts play Gilbert is itself something of a Catch 22. She’s naturally likeable; we root for her—out of habit, of nothing else. But as gifted an actress as Roberts is, she sometimes can’t escape her own glittering movie-star-ness. A scene in Italy where Liz and her friends share their blessings around a dinner table reminded me of a similar (but much wittier) scene in Notting Hill. And every time she let loose with that patented snort of laughter, I thought: that’s Julia laughing, not Liz.
Eat Pray Love clocks in at a whopping 133 minutes. And why not? Everything else about the film is indulgent. The film does have at least one earthbound moment to offset all the New Age proselytizing: In Bali, the medicine man wants Liz to copy books of teachings in longhand. Instead, she sneaks it off his property and takes them to the nearest Xerox machine.
Now that’s the kind of enlightenment I can get behind.