Much like Under the Tuscan Sun (2003) and Shirley Valentine (1989), Eat Pray Love is one of those “mature woman gone wild” adventure films that sets its sights on not only conquering man but setting the universe in order, bringing balance to the madness, and above all else making sure we all understand the complexity that is woman. Yes, it was an Oprah favorite and author Elizabeth Gilbert made the talk show circuit explaining the virtues of her memoir’s personal quest of redemption and discovery, but could it be made into a successful film? A worthwhile film? Debatable.
We first meet Julia Roberts’ ‘Liz’ sitting with a toothless wise man named ‘Ketut’ in Bali. He lays down a prophesy for our pretty woman that doesn’t really fire her up – but, of course, reveals itself accurate as we jump cut to “six months later” and ‘Liz,’ perpetually balled up in the head office, realizes her wimpy new husband (Billy Crudup) of one year is even wimpier than she imagined. Get this, the guy wants to go back to school and get a second degree and might even consider teaching! Poor schmuck. He will now officially be kicked to the curb.
But like most rebounding 4o somethings, ‘Liz’ is terrified of being alone and becomes quickly smitten with an equally wimpy actor played by James Franco. This guy never saw her coming and is soon relegated to sleeping alone while she tosses and turns on the floor saying things like “I don’t know how to be here.” And he’s thinking “Damn, Pineapple Express was a lot more fun than this!”
And another one bites the dust. Franco literally gets kicked to the curb as they part company on one of those only-in-New York brownstone staircases, complete with dramatic camera pull exit shot and that crucial mixed emotion closeup of our heroine wondering quizzically “God, I hope I’m doing the right thing, cuz he is kind of cute, in a Spiderman sequel kind of way.”
Fortunately for us, ‘Liz’ has one of those cliché stock movie character friends (Viola Davis) who only exists to play devil’s advocate and ask the protagonist all the right questions to advance the story (Oscar nom Davis must have had a blast). We learn that ‘Liz’ has had it up to her lips in wimpy American men and she’s gonna hightail it to Italy first, then make her sweet way to India, and then mozey on back to Bali.
So off she goes to Rome to eat plate after plate of heavenly Italian cuisine (this is emphasized by a ridiculous sequence of her trying to fit into her jeans) and hang out with a motley crew of swarthy pseudo-intellectual, America-bashing, socialist wannabe hangers on who she grows a familial affection for – I didn’t – and then has to say ‘ciao’ to like only Julia Roberts can. Yep. Teary eyed and smirky sad.
Then it’s India where she befriends a really obnoxious and abrasive fellow ashram ex-pat (another Oscar nom Richard Jenkins, playing what I think he thought was a Texan, not good). He yells at her a few times and she finally yells back, and in the end they both have heavy themes coming out of their ears, just weepy and smirky sad enough for us to understand what the film is all about. Something about learning to love after fear has made you mad, or was it sad?
Back to Bali. And, while their meeting may have been oh so contrived (his jeep almost hits her on her bike!), thank God for the arrival of Javier Bardem. Finally someone who cares enough about his own life for us to care about this film. And ‘Liz.’
This film proves two rules from the Lars Beckerman Handbook of Film Truths: Rule #16B – A movie star can occasionally elevate mediocre material; Rule #2 – Any film is only as good as its director. Ok, ok. What’s the number one rule, you ask? Here. Rule #1 – Any film worth seeing is worth seeing twice. There. Now go buy the handbook (Barnes & Noble $12.95 plus tax).
Eat Pray Love was directed by Ryan Murphy of Glee fame. And, in my estimation, this is where the film went wrong. Murphy also directed Running With Scissors (2006), another personal memoir adaptation (Augusten Burroughs), which I found eccentrically touching and well-crafted – not to mention an outstanding performance by the late Jill Clayburgh. My hunch is the director had a much stronger connection with this source material. Both Eat Pray Love and Running With Scissors were produced by Brad Pitt. While I give props to Pitt for going after some of these beloved literary works, he of all people should recognize that film is ultimately a director’s medium and finding the right match is everything.
You’ll notice if you care to, that when a television director like Murphy finally gets his hands on some of that big studio cash money he goes nuts with the camera setups. Where a more sure handed film director might have chosen simplicity, the kid in a candy story mentality results in endless unnecessary tracking shots and dramatic push-ins, camera tilts, pans & booms. I didn’t care for how Eat Pray Love was shot, lit, or edited – more gratuitous camera moves than a Brian DePalma soft porn thriller. I found the lighting overblown (tons of romantic back lighting shots), and I kept trying to convince myself that the soft focus was unintentional and not meant to hide Roberts’ age (ala Cybill Shepherd). Narration is always tricky to pull off and I’m not sure it works here; but then again, when you’re adapting a beloved best seller there is a certain expectation, although my wife repeatedly turned to me and said those dreaded words “This is nothing like the book.”
So what did I like about Eat Pray Love? Julia Roberts. She’s still a big time star with electric eyes and huge charisma; and as the handbook states, stars can some times elevate a mediocre film. That’s why they get paid the big bucks.
But – and I’m not just being overly sensitive here – all the men are wimps. Save for Javier Bardem whose emotional honesty and equivalent star power consume the third act and manage to salvage the heart and soul of the film. The guy is good. I would gladly pay box office dollars to watch Julia and Javier mix it up in a love story all their own. Something for everyone.