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Eat Pray Love (2010) ***

August 13, 2010

written by: Ryan Murphy & Jennifer Salt and Elizabeth Gilbert (novel)
produced by: Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Julia Roberts, Stan Wlodkowski
Tabrez Noorani
directed by: Ryan Murphy
rated PG-13 (on appeal for brief strong language, some sexual references and male rear nudity)
133 min.
U.S. release date: Aug. 13, 2010

The words “Eat Pray Love” could easily be found on a bumper-sticker, a to-do list, or written on the palm of someone who is so lost that such basic and essential directives appear to be a rejuvenating lifeline back to one’s self. The book Eat Pray Love is a best-selling memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert, reflecting on her year-long trek to Italy (eat), India (pray) and Bali (love, albeit unplanned and unintentional, isn’t that always the case?) after both a dissolving marriage and pre-divorce affair. The movie “Eat Pray Love” stars Julia Roberts, nicely fitting in a role we’ve seen her in before and that’s not a bad thing.
The film opens in Bali where a wide-smiling, toothless old sage (Hadi Subiyanto) is seen reading the palm of Liz Gilbert (Julia Roberts), a New York City writer who has come there to do a piece on Bali culture. Through his indecipherable readings, he tells her what she already knows, that her love life is spiraling down the drain and soon she will have nothing and, most intriguingly, that she will be back in six months. This surprises Liz, but, as the audience, we certainly know that this is going to happen. It’s just a matter of why and how.

Months later, back in the Big Apple, things aren’t going so well between Liz and her loyal-yet-clueless husband, Stephen (Billy Crudup). You get the sense that, while they have known each other quite a while, both are somewhat self-absorbed and detached. Liz has her married-with-children friend and publisher, Delia (Viola Davis), to confide in yet the marriage misery continues to build. She is left unfulfilled as an individual, without any real autonomy or true identity. Not even a rebound relationship with David (James Franco), a cute and young actor can satisfy her or free her from such an impasse. She realized that in order to get back to any semblance of self, and back to truly feeling something (anything!), a bold and scary move needed to be made.

Liz’s announcement to go on a year-long, global jaunt comes as a shock to her friends but we see it coming. Well, not only do we know the long-desired escape is coming but by this time we’re ready for it to come. Seeing a self-made modern career woman (or man for that matter) go on and on about how awful life is, can be challenging for an audience.  I know I thought of Meryl Streep’s character in “It’s Complicated”, as I watched Roberts as Liz, and how difficult it was for me to feel for someone who virtually has it all. It’s a reminder though that despite whatever material possessions or successful an individual has, their soul can still be incomplete. I’m not gonna knock any of that though, its just that it’s too easy to see that there are so many others out there worse off than she is. But, this isn’t their story, it’s our internally conflicted protagonist’s story.

Once we start traveling with Liz, it’s easy to get lost in all the scenery and swept away in all that she experiences. The people that she meet along the way tend to be just as charming and enchanting as the locations they reside in. I know these characters are based on real people, but it’s hard to separate them from the countless others we have seen in other travelogue movies. Once you give in to the typical, somewhat superficial conventions that these supporting characters unfortunately fall into, then you can sit back and enjoy it all.

In Italy, Liz coincidentally makes friends with the most beautiful bohemians, allowing for several scenes of walking down cobblestone roads and laughing around a decadent amount of food. Oh, the eating in Italy! The pasta, the fresh asparagus and insatiable desserts, all seduce the camera, compelling you to order from your favorite Italian restaurant upon exiting the theater. So, what does she find in Italy? A little independence, a bigger pair of jeans and some friends.

Eat, Pray, Love stills
Then, it’s goodbye trattorias and hello ashrams, as we journey to India. Here, she meets Richard from Texas (the typically great Richard Jenkins), whose gruff exterior and random life-applicable quotes fade the more they become friends, revealing a relatable wounded heart. Jenkins delivers a powerfully vulnerable performance and it’s a testament to the Oscar-nominated actor, considered the somewhat corny script he’s given to work with. His character makes up for so many of the indigenous characters we meet through Liz. How many times must we meet a young woman (as charming as she is) who is scared about her pending arranged marriage? Clearly, Liz will befriend her and as she attends the girl’s lavish wedding she will obviously think back to the good and bad feelings conjured from her own wedding. These are obvious situations that we can clearly see coming around the corner, but somehow irregardless, they are enjoyable.

Then, it’s back to Bali with Liz coming full-circle, returning to her shaman (describing him appropriately as Yoda), more self-aware of her uncertainty. She also meets and befriends Wayan (Christine Hakim), a local healer and single mother. Of course, she is flummoxed how she finds Love in the most unexpected way, in the form of Felipe (Javier Bardem), a Brazilian with an affinity for making mix tapes and lover of Air Supply and Phil Collins. Like Jenkins, Bardem hits the right emotional notes, adding more dimensions to a role that could easily be the stereotypical unshaven exotic man who strays Liz from her path of liberation. These two seem to have more in common then even they know, which makes their meet-cute much more believable than you’d expect.

EAT PRAY LOVE - Javier Bardem and Julia Roberts
Watching “Eat Pray Love”, I found myself thinking of “Knight and Day”, the Tom Cruise movie that come and went last month, like the satisfying breeze that it was. While the two films are polar opposites in tone and genre, there are two elements present. Both movies are headlined by two “movie stars” whose bankability may now be in question or even dismissed, even though they have decades of proven talent. Both movies offer  a delightful time at the movies. That is, as delightful as many of their other films that have become so familiar with audiences, to the point where you allow yourself to just go along with them.

Credit must be given to Roberts, who while not stretching her acting chops here, she still proves to be someone we want to follow. We’ve seen her runaway from husbands before and seen her face holding back the waterworks, but this is how we’ve come to know her and she does convincingly well. Regardless of how Oprah’s Book Club readers know the character of Elizabeth Gilbert (responsible for “Coyote Ugly”), it’s still Julia Roberts on the screen that we follow. Maybe it is a better viewing experience for people like me who have never read the book, but I’d be so inclined to say that despite any preconceptions of the character, Roberts is worth it.

On the flipside, director and co-writer Ryan Murphy (of Glee and Nip/Tuck fame) is not worth it. This film could’ve easily been directed by Gary Marshall, Nora Ephron or Nancy Meyers. Murphy has the same unnecessary camera sweeps and musical queues that you’d find in any of those director’s rom-com films. Not to mention, the song selection for some of the sequences in the film. Having one Neil Young song in a flashback is fine, but to play “Heart of Gold” in Italy while everyone is knocked from Thanksgiving food coma? It just doesn’t fit. Stick to songs that fit the locale, or save new songs like Eddie Vedder’s “Better Days” for the end credits.

There are as many devoted fans of Gilbert’s book as there are rabid haters and they have all have reasons….so be it. My attraction to travelogue movies, where Americans go abroad in search of something different and new, got the better of me here. Just as “Under the Tuscan Sun” and “Mamma Mia!”, provided beautiful vistas to get lost in, I was able to blink past any eye-rolling moments and just enjoy it. With a cast as talented as this, it wasn’t that hard.

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