Eat Pray Love
Directed by Ryan Murphy
I haven't read Elizabeth Gilbert's bestseller Eat Pray Love, but apart from the fact that a jillion or so others have, it actually seems like relatively daring material for a big-studio movie adaptation: a single woman, on her own, traveling through the world, searching for a spiritual awakening rather than, say, a spectacular Plaza wedding to the perfect man who was standing in front of her the whole time. But this un-plotty wandering also requires a point of view, a way into potentially solipsistic material. In place of inspiration, director Ryan Murphy has Julia Roberts.
Roberts plays Liz, the writer who ditches her unsatisfying marriage and sets out to rediscover herself in Italy, India, and Bali. Over her ten years or so since playing Erin Brockovich, Roberts has grown tougher, spikier, but also often comes off sort of irritable, which can make her seem more dangerous (in Duplicity) or aloof and vaguely annoyed to be making movies (in most everything else). In Eat Pray Love, she wields her famous galloping laugh bluntly, trying to cut through her character's self-absorption, but she never truly lets go of her movie-star upper hand. With "love" finally turning up in the final stretch, embodied by an impossibly patient, adventurous, and soulful Javier Bardem, the movie becomes easy to read as Julia Roberts going on a spiritual journey to rediscover her ability to make worthless romantic comedies.
But my admitted Roberts block might not matter if Murphy had a flair for storytelling. He dramatizes this journey of self-discovery through book-on-tape narration and, well, characters talking a lot about self-discovery, including a long parade of foreigners on hand to tell anecdotes and symbolize ways of life but rarely engaging in actual, meaningful interaction. Liz likes just about everyone she meets, and they all like her right back. Murphy tries to dress these anticlimactic sequences with style; he likes overhead shots, which he cuts to indiscriminately during a number of long dialogue scenes. I guess they're supposed to introduce a broader view of the landscapes or maybe an unnamed deity's point of view, but really they only offer false hope of escape.
The escape route is never clear, either. For a 130-minute movie where characters spend a lot of time explaining things, the chronology of actual events is confusing and rushed. A pre-trip relationship between Liz and boy-toy James Franco descends into misery out of nowhere, and when Liz reaches Italy, she's there for two weeks before the movie decides to include a pasta-revelation scene, as if she only just realized her previously stated express purpose of visiting. Given its supposed urges to get in touch with natural wonder and openness, Eat Pray Love is surprisingly bloodless, almost mechanical. It's like Lost in Translation with far more dialogue to far less effect, as none of it arrives via dry Bill Murray delivery; the men in the movie are too focused on Roberts-as-Liz to give their opinions on anything else. The lone sorta-exception is Richard Jenkins as a Texan Liz meets in India; his energy, and Liz's struggle with meditation, lend the "pray" section a little humanity and a dash of genuine uncertainty.
Murphy must have a thing for zeitgeisty memoirs; he previously took a shot at Running with Scissors, with similarly off-key results. Eat Pray Love fails to hit that movie's toxic levels of smug self-worship, if only because it lacks an onscreen tag informing us that after the events of the movie, Elizabeth Gilbert went on... to write a book. I can even give everyone the benefit of the doubt and allow that when a character actually tells Liz/Roberts that—in case you hadn't noticed—"this is about you," maybe the filmmakers are talking to the audience, inviting them to share in the inward-peering self-acceptance. Problem is, there's no you there.
Opens August 13