EAT PRAY LOVE is a glossy travelogue of a flick, full of stereotypes and caricatures providing a colorful backdrop to Julia Roberts’ glamour lighting. Based on the book of the same name by Elizabeth Gilbert, it is the personal journey towards inner happiness taken by Liz (Julie Roberts) as she learns the lessons of the title in that order. While Liz’s inner struggles may well have been wrenching, and while the book she wrote about them may well have been moving, the flick drifts in a never-never land where such profound feelings dare not tread.
Liz starts the story as a successful travel writer with a flourishing career that takes her to exotic places, a marriage to a husband who worships her, and a lavish house in New York City that is spacious and tasteful. Naturally Liz is not happy. After a sophisticated party where her best friend shows off her new baby, and her husband declares he wants to go to graduate school, Liz gets on her knees and does something she’s never done before. She prays to God for a sign to save her from her misery. Roberts is an actress not without a fine flair for melodrama, but she never evinces the complete aridity of the soul required to make Liz anything other than a malcontent unable to appreciate the blessings she acknowledges that she’s been given.
And so it is on to a fling with the younger actor (James Franco) starring in the mediocre play that she’s written, and then the year-long trip that will take her to Italy, India, and Bali. In Italy, she learns to eat with abandon. In India, at the ashram the actor aspired to visit, she learns to meditate. In Bali she learns to party hard without regret and fall in love with only minor reservations. Apparently not all her lessons have been learned.
The script is creaky, preferring to re-visit the cheesy flicks of the 1950s and 60s in which American gals went abroad ostensibly to broaden their horizons, but actually to find romance. In a nod to 21st-century sensibilities, romance is the last piece of the puzzle and, in context, the least important one.
In truth, food in general, and spaghetti in particular, has never been photographed more lovingly. The energy and passion as the strands sweep impudently in and around the sauce, swirling in slo-mo around the fork before being consumed with a look of transcendent satisfaction by Roberts finds no equal anywhere else in the story. Considering the noble if wounded soul waiting for her on Bali to show her the true meaning of romance and sex is in the form of Javier Bardem, that is saying a great deal. It also explains why one of the posters for the flick does not feature the lovely Ms Roberts with the equally lovely Mr. Bardem, or with the equally lovely James Franco. No, it is Ms Roberts sharing a very special moment with a cup of gelato. For women bombarded from all sides by media promoting impossible standards of perfection as the norm, it makes perfect sense. There are an abundance of films offering hunks o’ sensitive beefcake up for the delight and delectation of their straight female audience. This film offers sensitive beefcake that accepts the post-Italia Liz, the one bearing a few extra and joyously gained pounds, though, to be honest, it’s Liz in the form of a still-svelte Julia Roberts.
To a lesser extent, there is the irresistible lure of the other lesson of Italy: the pleasure of doing nothing. For the overscheduled woman, the scene of Liz alone in her quaintly crumbling Roman apartment, delicately nibbling on stalk of perfectly prepared asparagus as the golden sun floods the room and nothing to hurry her along must be painfully tantalizing. That and the slavish adoration Liz finds everywhere she goes, from the all-too convenient Swedish tourist who takes her under her wing in Italy, to the wizened and all-wise medicine man on Bali, and, of course, the tall, dark, and handsome Bardem. This ultimately isn’t about Liz finding her inner balance or her Prince Charming, it’s the teasing promise of what life could be like if one could chuck all of one’s responsibilities and all of one’s self-imposed restrictions and still have the fairy tale ending that includes jeans that fit with a size of less than two digits, and the ability to wake up from a night of hard partying and near debauchery with nary a trace of under-eye puffiness. If only the film had the courage to stick to that story.
The cast as a whole shows an admirable commitment to the seriousness of their venture, though only Richard Jenkins, as the Texan who rankles Liz in the ashram before becoming her best friend and spiritual coach, rises above it. Roberts brings her trademark explosive laughter, the equally trademark tender smile of sorrow and the other tender smile of joy, but little more. Franco has his aetherial prettiness and limpid eyes. His only job, though, to look elated or wounded, but not to project more than Roberts. Jenkins, however, is an actor of effortless complexity, making any role he undertakes, drama or comedy, richer for the emotional investment he makes. Though the character goes through a familiar story arc, Jenkins, in boldly disjointed plaids and a thoughtful expression in which a lifetime can be read, makes the material his own and brings it to visceral life in an otherwise too varnished film.
EAT PRAY LOVE has beautiful scenery. The audience may find itself wondering how it is that Liz manages to find so many places in that beautiful scenery around the world that can maintain her carefully highlighted hair rather than contemplating the spiritual journey the story invites said audience to take. And where to stop for a dish of pasta and/or gelato on the way home.