Viola Davis

Eat Pray Love

eat pray love

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.

Released: 2010
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
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2016

Kate & Leopold

kate and leopold

My recent infatuation obsession with the television show Outlander prompted me to revisit that underappreciated film genre – the time travel romance. First on the list is 2001’s Kate and Leopold, a time capsule of a movie when Meg Ryan was romcom queen, Hugh Jackman’s biceps were normal-person-sized, and executives were still scribbling on Palm Pilots. It surprised me then that the film holds up – as a comedy more than a romance, and the cast should get most of the credit. You really can’t pull off this kind of story without them since the very idea of time travel is so fundamentally absurd. But I suppose you could say the same about true love. Both need total commitment from the storytellers to nudge the film from the realms of fantasy into some semblance of reality, even if it’s just emotional.

The opening sequence establishes the degree of this fanciful conceit. We meet Stuart (a charmingly neurotic Liev Schreiber), a 21st century scientist who has sneaked into the late 1800s to spy on Leopold, Duke of Albany (Jackman). When he tries to return to the present day by jumping off the yet unfinished Brooklyn Bridge into a whirly time portal, the good duke gets pulled in too. The mechanics of time travel don’t really figure into the story because it isn’t so much the act or (il)logical effects of it as it is the travelers themselves that center the narrative.

Very quickly, chaos abounds. Stuart has no choice but to bring Leopold back to his apartment, attracting the attention of his ex-girlfriend, Kate (Ryan), who lives directly below. Since the portal won’t open for another week, they all must try to coexist in relative harmony. Leopold, however, doesn’t know how to navigate these modern times; he’s puzzled by the ringing telephone and appalled by the need to clean up after your dog. These jokes run pretty standard, but some stand out due to their sheer pluck. The sight of a young Hugh Jackman looking like an “escapee from a Renaissance fair” bang on about the madness of a toaster that requires one and a half pushes just makes me laugh.

It’s not technology that has Leopold most confused, and at odds with others, though but the absence of manners and common decency. How degenerate modern society has become. Kate works as an ad executive peddling products she knows are inferior, and this lack of integrity offends Leopold to the core. No longer just a time tourist, he instead morphs into a paragon a 19th century gentleman. At first, Kate and her actor brother Charlie (a very lovable Breckin Meyer) find the visitor’s formality varyingly odd and irritating. But Charlie softens when Leopold dispenses some sound dating advice, and Kate sheds her tough career woman shell when she realizes that men exist in this world who will literally ride in on a white horse to rescue you.

This is where the fantasy takes over. If you buy into the idea that 19th century men are morally superior, or that we all need better manners, then this movie just works and you can enjoy the happily ever after. The alternatives to Leopold simply aren’t appealing. Between the scatter-brained Stuart, irresponsible Charlie, and Kate’s skeevy boss, J. J. (a slimy Bradley Whitford), you’d be stupid not to choose the guy with brocade trim coat and tight white pants. As a 21st century woman, however, I need more than Hugh Jackman to convince me that looking backwards to model appropriate gender relations is a good idea, since when has this ever been the case? Rooftop dinners and handwritten apologies are fine, but pointing out that “a lady in trousers isn’t dangerous, merely plain” will not win me over. There’s a degree of dishonesty to the idea that Kate needs saving – from her sad love life, her exploitative job, her lecherous boss – and that Leopold is the one to do it because men were oh so chivalrous back in the day. Maybe, but maybe not.

Released: 2001
Prod: Kathy Conrad
Dir: James Mangold
Writer: Steven Rogers, James Mangold
Cast: Meg Ryan, Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber, Breckin Meyer, Bradley Whitford, Natasha Lyonne, Paxton Whitehead, Philip Bosco, Kristen Schaal, Viola Davis
Time: 123 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2016