Thursday, August 12, 2010

Review: "Eat, Pray, Love"

Here's my six-word review of "Eat, Pray, Love": I wish they'd stopped at "Eat."

This new Julia Roberts star vehicle is based on the best-selling memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert about the year she spent traveling the globe to rediscover herself following a painful divorce. She spends four months each in Italy, India and Indonesia seeking nourishment -- for, as the title suggests, her body, soul and heart.

It's a more ambitious role than Roberts has tackled in the decade since her Oscar-winning turn in "Erin Brockovich," and one centered around a woman of refreshingly mature years. I admired Roberts' grasping for something meatier, but this film sticks her with an unrelatable character that even her coltish smile can't beautify.

Director Ryan Murphy, who co-wrote the screenplay adaptation with Jennifer Salt, spends an excessive amount of time setting up Liz's life in New York prior to her trip. In these sequences Liz is established as a successful but skittish woman who doesn't seem to belong anywhere, or to anyone -- even herself.

She quickly, and callously, decides to divorce her husband Stephen (Billy Crudup). Despite his flightiness, he does seem very determined about his desire to stay together and attempt to work things out. When she won't even try, our sympathy for her wanes.

Sooner than would seem appropriate, or even comprehensible, Liz ends up in the arms of David (James Franco), a much younger actor who turns her on to meditation and Hindu scripture. She soon decides that she needs to learn to love herself before she can love another again, though she at least packs her newfound spirituality for the trip.

The first sequence in Rome has an uplifting energy as Liz searches for the perfect pizza, learns the lingo, and absorbs the Italian devotion to beauty and pleasure without any American veneer of guilt. It's here that she seems to tame her self-absorption a bit, finds some new friends and truly grows as a confident individual.

The spiritual section in India shifts into a seriously downbeat gear, as Liz lives at a Hindu temple, prays and meditates, and verbally jousts with Richard (Richard Jenkins), a fellow American -- well, he's Texan, which to the typical New Yorker is far more exotic than the Far East.

Richard, who looks like James Taylor and talks like Obi-John Wayne, calls her "Groceries" for her healthy appetite and counsels her to clear her head of self-doubt and regret, or it will ruin her life. Richard knows this through personal experience, as he lays bare in a rooftop scene that's supposed to be revelatory and emotionally cathartic, but just makes the audience want to tiptoe down the stairs and escape.

The vistas are perhaps the most beautiful in Bali, but Liz's journey of discovery grows less genuine with every step. She romances a Brazilian businessman (Javier Bardem) who's also been through a painful divorce, and studies with a medicine man (Hadi Subiyanto) who looks like Yoda, but with a worse dental plan.

I confess that I found Liz's New Age-y proclivities a dreadful bore -- I'm still trying to wrap my head around the whole Guru Gita thing, which involves a bunch of people chanting at a painting of a woman, as near as I can figure. At 139 minutes, the movie feels sprawling and self-indulgent.

And I'm always suspicious of memoirs in which people ditch their entire lives for parts unknown and unexpected adventures -- and, it turns out, for good reason.

After seeing the movie and doing a little Googling, I learn that the real Elizabeth Gilbert pitched the idea for her book to a publisher before embarking on her journey, and used the advance to pay for it.

"Eat, Pray Love" seems less like a year of wild abandonment to indulgence and exploration of the inner soul, and more a calculated mission to land on Oprah's Book Club. It's mass-produced gruel, dressed up as native cuisine.

2 stars out of four

No comments:

Post a Comment