Eat Pray Love (United States, 2010)August 11, 2010
Eat Pray Love is a muddle of a film - an overlong bore that either mistakenly thinks it's something more than a humdrum romance or has incorporated a variety of pretentions as window-dressing. In either case, the movie's quasi-preachy attitude effectively counterbalances whatever charm Julia Roberts brings to the proceedings. Eat Pray Love's trite, platitude-laden "philosophy" embraces concepts perfect for our post-modern society: God lies within, self-forgiveness is the road to enlightenment, and it doesn't matter how many people you hurt as long as you're happy in the end. The movie is banal; the underlying doctrine is dubious. Now I can understand why the source material has received as much scorn as it has inspired devotion.
Liz Gilbert (Julia Roberts) is going through a mid-life crisis. She is bored with her upper middle class Manhattan lifestyle and wants to do something else but, like an indecisive college student, she doesn't know what. So she dumps her devoted husband, Stephen (Billy Crudup), and takes up with a young, hunky actor (James Franco). If you don't dislike the lead character by this point, give it time - that will come. Eventually, she tires of the actor and heads overseas to find herself. Her first stop is Rome, where she spends four months indulging one of the deadly sins: gluttony. Then it's off to India, to live in an ashram and learn how to meditate. There she meets Richard from Texas (Richard Jenkins), whose revelations about his own sad life show Liz the path to enlightenment. Finally, she travels to Bali, where she hangs around a fortuneteller and falls for a sexy Brazilian, Felipe (Javier Bardem), who, like Liz, isn't looking for love when it finds him.
It's hard to decide which is Eat Pray Love's least appealing and most appalling quality: its needless 135-minute running time, its mealy philosophizing, or the deplorable nature of the lead character. In general terms, there's no rule that a protagonist has to be likeable but, in Liz's case, it's obvious we are intended not merely to like her, but to identify with her. The casting of Julia Roberts is intended to stack the deck. One doesn't hire this particular actress to play a shallow, self-absorbed woman unless the intention is for us to accompany her on an amazing, transformative journey. Although that may be the intention, it isn't what happens, perhaps because such a spiritual apotheosis is difficult for even the most accomplished director to convey (a category in which Ryan Murphy, who's currently embroiled in the TV series Glee, does not fit). What we end up with is an individual who's not fundamentally different at the end than at the beginning, and whom we're supposed to forgive because a few throw-away cut scenes show that the people she discarded are living happy lives without her.
In many ways, the central philosophy of Eat Pray Love (the movie), which may or may not be governed by the guiding principles spelled out in Elizabeth Gilbert's book, fits well with today's "me-first" attitude. The story focuses on self-gratification, self-fulfillment, and self-discovery. It's all about "self," even though there are times when a little self-abnegation is needed to get to the finish line. I'd be less irritated by the movie's philosophical foundation if it avoided sermonizing. Are the filmmakers seeking viewers or converts?
Roberts does her best to make Liz appealing, but it's a losing battle. She smooths some of the rough edges, which serves to make the protagonist bland and unmemorable rather than detestable. There are some interesting secondary characters, most of whom are on screen for far too little time. The best of these is Richard from Texas, who is played with dignity by character actor Richard Jenkins. The scene in which Richard conveys his sad history represents the best five minutes in the movie, and nothing else comes close. Javier Bardem is stuck in the thankless role of the love interest, and he doesn't appear until the movie has overstayed its welcome. Watching him, I couldn't help wishing he'd pull out the oxygen tank and use it on Liz.
When it comes to employing exotic locales as a backdrop for a character-based story, Murphy could learn a thing or two from Rubba Nada, whose Cairo Time successfully interweaves travelogue elements into a narrative-based feature. The best Eat Pray Love does is to incorporate some throw-way establishing shots. In Cairo Time, I felt like I was in Egypt. In Eat Pray Love, I felt like I was thumbing through the photo album of someone who spent some time in Italy (eat), India (pray), and Indonesia (love).
Perhaps the most damning indictment I can offer regarding Eat Pray Love is that it's interminable. As the running time stretches toward what seems to be infinity, the average viewer is likely to glance and his or her watch with increasing frequency. Occasional taps on the face are understandable because the minute hand may seem to either be moving too slowly or to have stopped altogether. Perhaps members of the film's target demographic, of which I am not a member, will immerse themselves with wistful pleasure in what Eat Pray Love offers. If so, good for them. For me, the problem isn't the estrogen overdose, it's the attempted indoctrination into a philosophy I find repugnant.
Eat Pray Love (United States, 2010)
Cast: Julia Roberts, Billy Crudup, Viola Davis, James Franco, Welker White, Luca Argentero, Richard Jenkins, Javier Bardem
Screenplay: Ryan Murphy & Jennifer Salt, based on the book by Elizabeth Gilbert
Cinematography: Robert Richardson
Music: Dario Marianelli
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures