Eat Pray Love
Details: (M), 133 mins, In Cinemas 7 October 2010, United States, English
Synopsis: Liz Gilbert (Julia Roberts) had everything a modern woman is supposed to dream of having – a husband, a house, a successful career – yet like so many others, she found herself lost, confused, and searching for what she really wanted in life. Newly divorced and at a crossroads, Gilbert steps out of her comfort zone, embarking on a journey around the world that becomes a quest for self-discovery. In her travels, she discovers the true pleasure of nourishment by eating in Italy; the power of prayer in India, and, finally and unexpectedly, the inner peace and balance of true love in Bali. Based upon the bestselling memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert.
Me Myself I
At the Australian Movie Convention, where I saw this film, a rival distributor quipped (good-naturedly) that he was releasing Buried on the same day as Julia Roberts’ latest because he figured that many people “would rather be buried alive than watch Eat Pray Love”.
Many a true word is spoken in jest.
It’s very tempting to up the snark when writing about this film, because there is no shortage of things to dislike about it, but I say with all sincerity that I went in with no preconceptions (good or bad) about it. My experience of Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling memoir Eat, Pray, Love is limited to a cursory flick through a paperback copy at an airport book shop. Mechanical failure was at that moment keeping my own wings clipped so I’ll admit that I harboured low-level resentment for Gilbert’s existential travel trifecta (it was neither the right time nor place to be reading about the year she spent sucking out the marrow of life in Italy, India and Indonesia); apart from this silly kneejerk reaction, I’ve had no connection to the source text since but friends whose opinions I respect tell me the book is self-aware, funny and really very good.
The film adaptation is none of those things.
Eat, Pray, Love has been co-adapted for the screen and directed by Ryan Murphy, best known as the creative force behind the bubbly effervescence of Glee and the skin-deep subversion of Floridian plastic surgeons, Nip/Tuck. No fan of subtlety (or punctuation), Murphy has reworked Gilbert’s life-affirming tome into a crass, overlit, overwrought ‘studio vehicle’ that a cynic might suspect was greenlit with a ballpoint pen circling the merchandise column of the balance sheet. (Just think! EPL-brand yoga mats and prayer bead necklaces!).
It’s a great shame that the EPL screenplay undermines the E,P,L ethos of personal discovery by making its protagonist seem like just another entitled yank cherry picking elements of Eastern philosophy to placate her own neuroses. Thirtysomething Liz (Julia Roberts) is unhappy about, well, just about everything in her outwardly fabulous life as a writer in NYC. Truman Capote might have diagnosed her condition as ‘the mean reds’ but Murphy has no truck with the classics. His glib handling of Liz’s restlessness and marital woes short-changes the real-life Gilbert (who was by all accounts close to a nervous breakdown). As film-Gilbert, Roberts has a fitful sleep and sheds a single tear before remarking “I don’t want to be married anymore”. That’s what counts for turmoil these days for the “I’m just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her” lady?
Billy Crudup, for his part, seems unsure of how to play the role of the ditched hubby, given he doesn’t fit the movie mould of a ‘Bad Husband.’ (Infuriating though it may be, it’s difficult to sufficiently demonise someone on celluloid when their worst sin seems to be a chronic lack of follow-through.) Mind you, the film is no poorer for Crudup’s absence. Ditto James Franco as the post-divorce lover, actor David. Liz’s hook-up with the hot young thing is supposed to be sizzling but there is little chemistry between the two. (Footnote: you too may engage in a ‘chicken or egg’ debate about the mutual dependencies of Franco’s EPL character and the actor's own recent foray into daytime soap.)
These establishing scenes in New York illustrate the fact that studio economics robs the adaptation of the luxury of a lengthy build-up – but Eat Pray Love’s running time (north of two hours) is hardly the product of a clock-watcher. The film is long and it feels even longer – Liz was still eating asparagus in Italy when I first checked my watch, and there were still another two countries on her itinerary.
In NY, a friend’s husband observes wryly that she has a knack for morphing into the men in her life. What better impetus to ditch her new doppelganger and take the ultimate ‘me time’, sans man? First stop is Italy, where Liz lives la dolce vita with a group of fellow travellers and drives the locals to distraction with her incessant questions. Being the ‘Eat’ portion of the program, Liz also samples a multitude of gooey cheeses and carbohydrates and cinematographer Robert Richardson, too, savours the opportunity to find new and exciting light sources with which to illuminate his leading lady.
Along the way, movie tropes usurp matters of consistency. Mr Murphy: Don’t have your lead extol the virtues of guilt-free gluttony if it’s just a set up for a silly chick flick moment on a change room floor, where she tugs at the zipper of her tight jeans. We’ll remember that the shopping trip was supposed to be a curves-kissing exercise to buy a bigger size.
Liz departs Italy with newfound skills (she is now able to order a meal in the local tongue, and cook a frozen turkey to the strains of Neil Young’s 'Heart of Gold') and heads east for some mysticism. The ‘Pray’ sequence in India is the film’s weakest – it’s especially talky and doesn’t practice what it preaches about cerebral switch-off. Liz’s pursuit of epiphany is the most introspective aspect of the three sequences and Murphy struggles in providing a cohesive narrative – when in doubt, he pulls out a few dreary dream sequences from his TV toolkit.
Liz’s platonic companion in the ‘Pray’ chapter is an intrusive, bristly Texan (Richard Jenkins) who dispenses tough love through ashram aphorisms like “If you want to get to the castle, you have to swim through the moat” (n.b.: this gem about endurance is eerily appropriate at this snoozy juncture in the film). A young local girl’s resistance to her parents’ customs provides the hook on which to hang another dream sequence about Liz’s own failings with men.
The final stint has us in Bali, seeking the counsel of the toothless soothsayer Ketut (Hadi Subiyanto), whose sage premonitions are what inspired Liz’s gap year in the first place. His smiley “You! You! You!” teachings incite “Me! Me! Me!” responses from his student, and that says it all, really.
All scenes in EPL have an Indigenous prophet (Italian barber/Indian ingénue/Balinese Ketut), and a global citizen deeply engaged with the local culture (Swedish backpacker in Italy/tough-talking Texan in India). In Bali, the latter takes the form of Javier Bardem, as a heartbroken Brazilian who teases out Liz’s ability to love again and comparatively, Bardem’s brief interpretation of fragility shows up all that Roberts has spent two hours attempting to convey.
The fatal flaw of Eat Pray Love is that for a celebration of enlightenment through travel and the benefits of restorative calm, the end result is so hollow and artificial. See if it you must but avoid it if you can, and don't mistake entitlement for enlightenment.
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