For Julia, a New Age journey
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, August 13, 2010
Anyone bringing Elizabeth Gilbert's blockbuster memoir of self-discovery, "Eat Pray Love," to the screen has a huge challenge before him: How to overcome the book's episodic, anecdotal structure and penchant for aphorism, to create a dynamic narrative? Even more daunting, how does one dramatize what is essentially an interior journey?
The answer, at least according to director Ryan Murphy ("Glee"), is to photograph Julia Roberts looking by turns beatific, pained and just slightly self-pitying against as many fabulous backdrops as possible. That strategy pays off with uneven success in "Eat Pray Love," in which Roberts portrays the author as she recovers from a disastrous divorce, painful rebound relationship and general spiritual ennui on a year-long trip through Italy, India and Bali.
The film's most crucial constituency -- the book's rabid fans -- are likely to feel well served by Murphy's adaptation, which hews pretty faithfully to Gilbert's story. (He veers off the path most wildly in India, where he was stuck filming Roberts meditating, or trying to meditate, for hours on end, full stop.) And even newcomers, men included, can enjoy being swept up in the film's lavish third chapter, where Gilbert meets a seductive Brazilian named Felipe (Javier Bardem) and embarks on a luscious love affair amid the verdant terraces and soft beaches of Bali.
All that eye candy aside, though, "Eat Pray Love" can't be described as a home run. At least during the movie's first third, Murphy doesn't stop moving his camera, compulsively swooping it around and perching it above the action as if it were a neurotic bird of prey. The perspective is at its most jangled in Italy, where Gilbert is supposed to discover the joys of Italy's language, food and "joy in doing nothing." But Murphy, American that he is, doesn't slow down long enough to convey the country's sensuous pleasures or to flesh out the personalities of the friends Gilbert meets while pursuing them.
Her supporting characters get a little more time in India, where Gilbert meets the expansive "Richard from Texas," played here by Richard Jenkins in a scene-stealing turn as a broken man healing his scars through bravado and spiritual seeking. It's in India, too, that "Eat Pray Love's" most affecting sequence transpires, as Gilbert makes peace with her ex-husband, played by Billy Crudup in a thankless but accomplished performance. (For the record, James Franco plays the post-divorce boyfriend, bringing every ounce of irresistible boyish charisma to the task.)
Roberts, who cannily chose to produce "Eat Pray Love" as the perfect vehicle for her alternately dazzling and relatable talents, manages to tamp down the book's most grating self-congratulatory tone. But in the movie, as in the book, all talk of God, the universe and love and light aside, there's no doubt who the real star is. As a middle-aged Dorothy at large in a New Age Oz, her Liz Gilbert mostly wanders around smiling, sometimes crying, but always somehow looking like a goddess herself, recently arrived to show others the way -- whether she's urging a Swedish student in Rome to eat more pizza or telling a teenage Indian girl reluctantly succumbing to an arranged marriage that she's visualizing a happy life for her. (Uhm, thanks?)
By the time Gilbert arrives in Bali, the extravagant beauty of that island -- made all the more eye-popping by the presence of Bardem -- is likely to inspire filmgoers simply to sigh, sit back and enjoy the view. What, exactly, does Gilbert learn at the feet of the jolly elderly medicine man she feels destined to befriend -- aside from how to smile with her liver? It's never clear, and it doesn't much matter. "Eat Pray Love" finally settles into its own cinematic destiny as an attractive escapist love story, in which the romance is more with the I than with the guy.
Contains brief strong profanity, some sexual references and male rear nudity.