Different things in different places
Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling book Eat Pray Love is the ultimate post-Seventies American female self-fulfillment story. A successful magazine writer, unhappy after a divorce and an affair with a younger man that didn’t work out, takes a year off to live several dreams: to forget her inhibitions and guilt feelings, go to wonderful countries, eat good food, explore her spiritual side, and find love. As Liz, Julia Roberts has the right amount of soulfulness, charisma, emotion, and humor. Julia is adorable. We may know her a little too well, but we love her.
Eat, pray, love: that is the order of things. But the movie is really in five parts. First there is the failed marriage. Liz’s husband of eight years, Stephen (Billy Crudup) is perfectly fine. They just were never fully committed to their marriage, and he can’t figure out what he wants to do. He’s recently switched to being a pastry cook, but now thinks he might like to become a teacher. He clings to the marriage with a vengeance, angry and crazy. When Liz breaks free of him, the second part begins: her affair with the young, charming, gorgeous actor, David (James Franco). She’s instantly living with him and in his bed (details are omitted), but they fight, and she’s miserable: another relationship that won’t ever really work out. During these early scenes she plays off her best friend, Delia (the strong, assured Viola Davis). Delia has a baby, a solid marriage. She doesn’t trust Liz’s new project, David.
Here is when God comes in. Liz is so desperate she prays. Her prayer is almost a “meet cute” with the Almighty. She is so inexperienced, she says in her voiceover, she wants to start out “I’ve always admired Your work.” From this comes the decision to spend a year traveling, whether Delia approves or not. She doesn’t: she thinks it’s just running away, and that Liz’s solutions are really right there in New York.
In the tidy organization of Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, eat, pray, love means: Italy, India, Bali. Each country has a designated function. In Rome, where she takes a big room in a disheveled flat for four months, Liz makes a small group of good friends who conveniently embrace her and introduce her to “dolce far niente,” the Italian anti-Puritan philosophy that it’s sweet to do nothing when you feel like it. She savors pasta, which is as lovingly depicted on screen as the prawns in the Italian film I Am Love. She takes her new Swedish girlfriend Sofi (Tuva Novotny) to Naples and makes her forget weight gain and eat the pizza. They buy larger jeans. Sofi’s handsome Italian boyfriend Giovanni (Luca Argentero) coaches Liz so well in Italian she can follow conversation at parties and order a complicated meal in a restaurant. This experience climaxes at a Thanksgiving feast in Liz’s honor with a family called Spaghetti. Everything in Rome is warm and beautiful.
Then bang! Liz is at the ashram in India of David’s lady guru, only the guru’s in New York. “Richard from Texas” (Richard Jenkins, in one of his most balls-out roles), a man who’s made a mess of his life, talks in “bumper stickers” (as does the whole film) and tells Liz over and over to empty her mind and give up her guilt feelings. She learns to meditate. This segment is all about processing. Liz has sent David a well-worded goodbye email, and he calls her. She goes to an Indian wedding and flashes back to when she married Stephen. She imagines him dancing with her at the Ashram. There is not as much about the food, except that Liz eats so hungrily Richard from Texas calls her “Groceries.”
At this point I was getting frankly rather weary. Eat Pray Love has as many costume and scene changes and musical interludes and dramas as a Bollywood spectacular and at two and a half hours is almost as long. Bollywood movies stop in the middle for an intermission or interval so the audience can go to the loo and get a sandwich and stretch. Not here. Julia Roberts and Ryan Murphy don’t take a break. But I think what makes me so tired isn’t the travel, the exotica, the food, and the merry-go-round of friendships and lovers, but the messages about Life. All this food, all this travel, and all this philosophy is an awful lot to take in, but it’s the philosophy that’s the most indigestible thing.
A woman friend told me she didn’t like Elizabeth Gilbert’s book. She found it “self-indulgent.” Yes, it is. But that’s the point. That’s why it’s the act of liberation every middle-aged, middle-class American white woman dreams of. Signor Spaghetti in Rome tells Liz truly that Americans don’t know how to enjoy themselves. He speaks to this kind of woman. Liz is running, justifiably, from the lingering insistence that every woman is primarily fulfilled by finding the right husband and staying with him. And being embodied by Julia Roberts, Liz is hard not to like. She’s not only a spiritual seeker, a gourmet, and a really nice person who’s catnip to men. She also knows how to party.
Liz has been to Bali six months before the action begins and met with Ketut Liyer (Hadi Subiyanto), a cute old guru with no teeth. She will go back to learn more from him, but also find a man who needs her. When Liz leaves India and goes to Bali she gets closer to Ketut, and also to a woman with a cute little girl who’s a traditional healer, whom she raises $18,000 for via email so she can buy a house. The healer is divorced too, as was Richard from Texas. So is the Brazilian import-export dealer, Felipe (Javier Bardem), with whom Liz finds love after he runs over her with his SUV. In the book, Felipe was older, as Liz was younger than Julia. Felipe indeed has a strapping 19-year-old Australian son, Leon (Tj Power) who comes to visit — because he lived twenty years in Australia, where he raised several boys and lost a marriage. Will she stay with Felipe? The movie, landing on the side of keeping the options open, doesn’t quite say.
You will have to see the movie to get the messages. They were lost on me, in one ear and out the other. There were too many of them, and they came too easily. I do not begrudge Elizabeth Gilbert her self-indulgence, or her travels, and she is lucky to have had such a string of handsome men to explore possibilities with. This is not Erin Brockovitch, or even Vivian of Pretty Woman (every ten years it seems, Julia embodies a larger-than-life female we can’t forget), but Liz embodies a feminine explorer, flying high. This is a lady to put the trashy, superficial preoccupations of Sex and the City 2 to shame. Eat Pray Love is hard to sit through, but impossible to dislike. It is, finally, very much a woman’s picture and a story for the devotee of self-help books. It is both more and less than Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun, another bestseller about an American woman seeking self-realization abroad. That was a superficial book and movie, focused on Italian real estate and Italian food. But its protagonist stays in Italy. I rather wish Liz had, too. But of course wonderful though it is, Rome doesn’t have ashrams and gurus, or elephants, or Brazilians with plantations.
Eat Pray Love is released in UK cinemas 24th September.
DIRECTOR: RYAN MURPHY
CAST: JULIA ROBERTS, BILLY CRUDUP, JAMES FRANCO, JAVIER BARDEM, RICHARD DENKINS
RUNTIME: 133 MIN