EAT PRAY LOVE, 2010
Directed by Ryan Murphy
Cast: Julia Roberts, Javier Bardem, Viola Davis, Billy Crudup, Richard Jenkins, Viola Davis, Ali Khan
Review by Joshua Starnes
Happily married Elizabeth Gilbert (Roberts) takes a right turn in her life by enduring a painful divorce and proceeding to take a round-the-world journey of self-enlightenment and fulfillment.
Do you know what the most interesting thing in the world to you is? You. Do you know what the least interesting thing in the world to anyone else is? You.
That’s not entirely true because people have relationships and empathy, but I think we can safely call it 95% true. So how do you get around that problem in a story that is essentially about you? As an author or filmmaker you can either make your ‘you’ stand-in so likeable and/or universal that everyone else sees themselves in it and goes along for the ride out of shared experience. Or you can make your stand-in such a vehicle for ridiculous wish fulfillment that everyone else comes along to pretend the have the shared experience.
A lot of movies like “Eat Pray Love” like to pretend to themselves they’re the first kind of story, without realizing (or actively) ignoring the fact they are the second, resulting in something that is simultaneously preachy and shallow, which is about as aggravating as it sounds. Try imagining one of the ‘Real Housewives’ of wherever explaining to you what you need to do reach spiritual enlightenment. Well, maybe not that shallow but certainly that immature.
Liz (Julia Roberts) isn’t happy with life. She doesn’t know why, she just is. She married her goofball husband (Billy Crudup) too early to realize that wasn’t what she wanted and the affair she has with a young actor (James Franco) doesn’t make things any clearer. Her only solution is to check out of life: travel to several countries (all beginning with the all important letter I) so that she can spend some time focusing on herself and what it is she really wants.
The thing is what Liz really wants is to be 20 again, with the wonderful expanse of life ahead of her and none of the cynical realizations of maturity to keep her from enjoying it. If that sounds really, really hard to relate to, it is. Liz maybe the most unlikeable character Julia Roberts has ever had to play, not because co-writer/director Ryan Murphy (“Glee”) is trying to make her so (and eventually redeem her) but because everything the film does pushes her in that direction.
I suspect that’s because his eye is less on his characters than it is on the loving, beautiful travelogue he has put together of Italy and Indonesia and India. Especially Italy. Sure, it’s the part of the movie that’s supposed to be about giving in to physical pleasures as a real thing not to feel guilty about, but it also seems to be the only part of the movie anyone making it really understands because it’s the only part that doesn’t pretend to be more than it is. I swear to God, they spent longer lovingly lighting the spaghetti under Robert Richardson’s watchful eye than they did trying figure out why on Earth anyone would ever like Liz.
However as it moves into its spiritual journey, with Liz embracing her inner ashram in India and her attempt to balance the competing desires of her heart of India, “Eat Pray Love” reveals itself to be the con man it is. It knows people want to have their cake and eat it too, and it’s going to do its best to give it to them, while spinning just enough spiritual platitudes to make sure you’re not really paying attention to the smoke and mirrors.
After a year of discovering herself Liz literally runs into a dashing Brazilian ex-pat (Javier Bardem) in Bali with all the finesse of a Harlequin romance and has to wonder if it was all for naught and all she really needed was someone else to make her happy after all. It’s the sort of thing people rake “Sex and the City” over the coals for but at least they had the honesty to be up front about it.
There are some descent supporting performances scattered in “Eat Pray Love” from Richard Jenkin’s sloganeering Texas pilgrim to Viola Davis as Liz’s publisher and one and only model of sanity in the world. But they’re not enough to turn the tide that is all, all about Liz.
“Eat Pray Love” is the shallowest of shallow wish fulfillment, which wouldn’t be so obnoxious if it wasn’t trying to gussy itself up with the clothing of enlightenment. But maybe I’m the one who’s cynical. If I met the supermodel of my dreams on a beach in Bali, I’d probably get over any personal problems I had, too.