In Eat Pray Love, Liz Gilbert (Julia Roberts) eats, prays and loves, while gliding through some of the world’s most beautiful settings. Populated with gorgeous people, vivid scenic vistas and picturesque multicultural happenings, the film would make an ideal promotional spot for its primary locations of Rome, India and Bali.
Glee co-creator Ryan Murphy’s adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s best selling, autobiographical self-help book (his directorial debut) gets the surface details right. Seen on a big enough screen, the pictures of Rome’s ornamental city streets, India’s sweat soaked ashrams and Bali’s lushly vegetated countryside provoke the sort of all-encompassing awe that in many respects defines the cinema.
But when it comes to the narrative woven around the scenery, the movie starts flat, stays flat and never recovers. Cast wrong and structured lazily, Eat Pray Love lacks the strong dramatic pull needed to sustain a 133-minute production. Mired in a milquetoast aesthetic obsessed with trendy “healing” tropes (meditation, close-ups on delicious looking pasta, Javier Bardem etc.) the movie rarely deviates from the genre’s standard path.
Liz is a thirty-something Manhattan based travel writer living a seemingly perfect, high end life, with a husband (Billy Crudup) who’s both hunky and quirky. But she’s miserable, feeling trapped in an existence of routines before she’s ready. One contentious divorce and failed rebound romance later, the writer bails on the city for a yearlong adventure that will take her to Rome, India and Bali. Exemplifying titular exactitude, she rediscovers her passion for food in the former, finds love in the latter and prays in between.
Roberts, a relatively rare big screen presence these days, is best utilized in parts that demand a stretch from her classic movie star, center of attention persona. She’s an ideal team player (see Charlie Wilson’s War) who has just about exhausted her regular girl turns princess appeal. More interesting when playing characters that are offbeat or, at minimum, unhappy, as Liz the actress quickly transforms into the sort of privileged, grinning, egocentric monster that she’s played in so many prior stories of self-fulfillment (Erin Brockovich etc.).
The screenplay, written by Murphy and Jennifer Salt, staggers forward in a repetitive tripartite structure. The picture hinges on Liz’s coming of age, her gradual march toward contentment. The Rome, India and Bali segments follow the same pattern and achieve the same basic effect — the protagonist explores her new haunts, makes friends and arrives at some sort of deeper level of self-understanding. The details of her awakening and the lessons she’s learned are revealed through cumbersome narration and monologues. Save for the occasional, undeniably moving flashback/imagined interaction with her ex-husband, the picture never gets into Liz’s head, never makes us viscerally feel the deeper, ingrained motivation for her quest.
Instead, Eat Pray Love offers the sort of superficial healing journey that smacks of a scrubbed clean, low-rent quack journey to nirvana, the sort one expects to find buried in the self-help section of your local Borders. By all accounts, the story told in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love is anything but that. Something, as usual, got lost in translation.
The Upside: The movie visually inviting, offering sights and sounds that aren’t big screen standards.
The Downside: It’s also impossibly superficial and so obsessed with “popular” healing standard that the experience of watching it can grate on the senses.
On the Side: Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir upon which the film is based has been one of the biggest hits of recent years. It’s sure to outlive this lackluster adaptation.