“Eat Pray Love” (2010). Cast: Julia Roberts, Javier Bardem, Richard Jenkins, Viola Davis, Billy Crudup, James Franco, Hadi Subiyanto, Mike O’Malley, Tuva Novotny, Luca Argentero, Giuseppe Gandini, Sophie Thompson, Rushita Singh, Christine Hakim. Director: Ryan Murphy. Screenplay: Ryan Murphy and Jennifer Salt. Book: Eat Pray Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert. www.letyourselfgo.com
The search for oneself, one’s purpose in life and one’s connection to the greater scheme of things is a common theme in stories of all kinds, from classic mythology to contemporary literature and even present-day cinema. And now that time-honored theme once again takes center stage in one of this year’s most anticipated theatrical releases, “Eat Pray Love.”
Based on the best-selling memoir of the same name by writer Elizabeth (Liz) Gilbert, “Eat Pray Love” chronicles the year-long globe-trekking odyssey of the author (portrayed here by Julia Roberts) in her quest to find herself—and God. The story opens in New York not long before Liz’s divorce from her husband, Stephen (Billy Crudup), a likable but ultimately lost soul. Rather than stay stuck in an unsatisfying marriage, Liz decides to end it and move on. But to what?
Liz initially takes up with David (James Franco), an aspiring young actor who bears a strikingly uncanny resemblance to her ex-husband, only in a younger version. But, upon realizing that she’s on the road to repeating the same mistake, Liz decides she needs to pursue a more radical course. Having always had a strong sense of wanderlust, she decides to travel the world in search of herself and a new spiritual compass. Her itinerary takes her to Italy, then to an ashram in India, and finally to the Indonesian island of Bali.
Throughout the course of her journey, Liz learns various lessons about life. A colorful assortment of guides helps her along the way, too, including a transplanted Swede living in Rome (Tuva Novotny), an uprooted Texan looking to find himself in India (Richard Jenkins), a Balinese holy man (Hadi Subiyanto), a miracle-working medicine woman (Christine Hakim) and a sexy, sensitive Brazilian living in paradise (Javier Bardem). As a result of her experiences and interactions, Liz finds a new way of looking at herself, her existence and her relationship with the divine—or at least that’s what viewers are told they’re supposed to believe, which is where, in my opinion, this film fails to deliver.
While I’d like to believe that the creators of this movie had the best of intentions, sadly, those aspirations are not reflected in the finished product. That’s because the picture focuses more on the surface trappings of Gilbert’s story rather than on the inner, heartfelt insights she was supposed to have gleaned from her journey, ultimately emphasizing shallow style over meaningful substance. In doing so, the movie comes across as more travelogue than revelation. It showcases its worldly destinations beautifully, serving up a banquet of gorgeous location shots, but, when it comes to its spiritual aspects, it offers only the occasional morsel—and in carefully controlled portions at that.
In the course of Liz’s odyssey, we learn that she is something of a quiet, but nevertheless self-avowed, control freak. To overcome this, what she really needs to do is let go and live life, and the filmmakers try very hard to convince us that that’s precisely what she’s done by story’s end. Unfortunately, that’s a stretch, given that the film itself is frequently flat, devoid of the passionate zest for living—both temporally and spiritually—that makes such an accomplishment possible. In fact, the picture is so lacking in this regard that viewers practically have to take the filmmakers’ word for it.
The movie’s overarching spiritual message deals with learning how to embrace both the outer, secular world (as told through Liz’s trip to Italy) and the inner, divine world (as told through her trip to India) and then how to successfully integrate the two (as explored in her Bali experience). And that’s certainly a worthwhile ambition, not unlike some of the ideas embodied in conscious creation/law of attraction principles. However, given the message’s presentation here, the relevance often gets lost in the depiction of local culture and attractions. Liz’s Italian experience, for example, with its spotlight on the secular, features so many eating sequences that it’s like watching programming from the Food Network. Similarly, the Indian sequence focuses more on religious ritual than it does on spiritual practice, frequently muddying the water when it comes to distinguishing the two and underemphasizing the significance of the latter. The Bali sequence, easily the film’s strongest, comes across best in making its point, but even that is often diluted by the incorporation of sidebar stories that, as nice as they are, take viewers off the main path and down unnecessary secondary roads.
The foregoing issues aside, “Eat Pray Love” is not without its strengths. As noted above, it’s beautiful to look at, and its performances are all quite capable, effectively fleshing out the characters (especially those of the guides) and making the narrative appear stronger than it actually is. But, in the end, even these assets can’t save a picture that’s lost and in search of a point to make.
Viewers looking for films about seekers in search of themselves and their connection to the Universe have a long list of better selections to choose from, and they’d be wise to give those pictures a look before spending time on this underwhelming offering. Those searching for movies that address this topic from a woman’s perspective in particular should check out such choices as “Under the Tuscan Sun,” “Shirley Valentine,” “An Unmarried Woman” or “Bread and Tulips,” to name a few.
While I certainly see the value of addressing the kinds of ideas this film attempts to explore, I also believe these notions need to be given their just due when displayed on the silver screen. Revelatory insights merit more attention than passing notation like oh so many items on a travel guide’s list of must-see attractions for a particular destination. Viewers truly deserve better when it comes to issues as important as this.
Copyright © 2010, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.