Eat, pray, love sounds like a marvelous plan if you’re hoping to overcome some midlife crisis, or quarterlife in my case. This film’s main character, Liz (Julia Roberts) does a lot of all three when she decides to step away from her life as a married, well heeled writer and take an adventure around the world. This is a good approximation of my life, except the part about being married, well heeled, or a writer. Basically, I wanted to step away, and that put me in a vulnerable position to enjoy the movie, the sort that I normally wouldn’t watch because I have an aversion to self-help memoirs, or whatever genre you want to classify the same-titled book on which Eat Pray Love is based.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2006 bestseller chronicles her struggle to “find herself,” and this adaptation will resonate with those are feeling a bit unmoored. It dips into some of the dark spaces where one is wont to confront fears and failures. Liz must reconcile the fact that her fickle husband (Billy Crudup), a man she loves and has been married to for eight years, is not the man for her, nor perhaps is the younger man (James Franco) she begins seeing after her divorce. That in turn has her questioning the map of her life, including her chosen career and the values and lifestyle that favors. One can argue that’s a good problem to have; if I was a published author who mingled with the East Coast intellectuals and whose work featured in national magazines, I would be writing about existential crises, not having one.
But Liz is deeply dissatisfied and not the type to just talk out her problems. A girl’s night out will not do it, and why should it when you have the money to quit your job and jet around the world for a year? Her funding, in reality, came from an advance, so let that knowledge settle where it may. For me, this information reinforced the artificiality of the project. Of course an attractive white woman would find enlightenment abroad, especially where brown people congregate in steaming huts without the benefit of air conditioning. Her journey is neatly packaged – delight in culinary pleasures in Italy, gain discipline through prayer in India, and reawaken her heart on the coasts of Indonesia.
This at least turns the film into a glossy travel and eats brochure. There’s a lot to coo at, such as the sumptuous tight shots of food – pastas, pizzas, and pastries galore – that forced me to hide my cider and popcorn in shame. The camera also plays with bold color palettes – fuchsia and gold at an Indian wedding and then a verdant palm tree grove in Bali. The photography alone arouses the senses, a way of stirring you out of your Netflix-induced coma.
One of Liz’s Italian friends observes that Americans know entertainment but not pleasure; they spend their days working or recovering from it. While Eat Pray Love is not the antidote to that, it orients you towards an arguably better way of living, and I can take that pill, along with its sugary self-help placebos. (“To lose balance for love is part of living a balanced life.” “Accept everyone you meet along the way as your teacher.” “Ruin is the road to transformation.”)
But for all its well placed truth baubles, I couldn’t shake the feeling of being duped. I like collective life wisdom with a glass of wine. I like the idea of a guru, though not mystical or exotic or, by those definitions, necessarily Asian. I like nervous, disastrous starts of true love. I even like crusty old men played by Richard Jenkins who turn out to have a deeply buried soft spot. But for a movie about a woman in a right emotional and spiritual mess, there are too many clean lines and compartments. The film works if you accept Liz and her enlightened sermons on self-fulfillment at face value. I don’t always, so fellow cynics, beware.
Prod: Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner
Dir: Ryan Murphy
Writer: Ryan Murphy, Jennifer Salt
Cast: Julia Roberts, Javier Bardem, Billy Crudup, Richard Jenkins, Viola Davis, James Franco, Sophie Thompson, Mike O’Malley, Christine Hakim, Arlene Tur, Hadi Subiyanto, Gita Reddy, Tuva Novotny, Luca Agentero, Rushita Singh
Time: 140 min
Country: United States