August 13, 2010

Eat Pray Love

Pretty Bipartisan Woman

Grade: C

Director: Ryan Murphy

Starring: Julia Roberts, Billy Crudup, Viola Davis, James Franco, Richard Jenkins, Javier Bardem, and Anakia Lapse

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 2 hour, 13 minutes

Eat Pray Love couches itself as a chronicle of self-discovery and enlightenment. But, call it female wish fulfillment or fantasy camp for the bourgeoisie, it is a self-indulgent, idealized travelogue that challenges you to care about the woes of the wealthy.

Based on the memoir of American author Elizabeth Gilbert, the film follows a successful writer (Julia Roberts) living in New York City and in her seventh year of marriage to a doting husband, Stephen (Billy Crudup). He pontificates about current events and wants to go back to school for his masters degree. This just isn’t enough for Liz, however, who spends her nights crying on the bathroom floor and knelling on bended knee, begging God for a sign on how to further improve her blasé existence.

Oddly, the Almighty seems to have better things to worry about. So, Liz leaves Stephen and starts an affair with David (James Franco), a struggling off-Broadway actor. Still dissatisfied, Liz decides to reboot her life by living abroad for a year in Italy, India, and Bali.

Each stop is essentially an extended pictorial, not unlike the National Geographic magazines Liz collected under her bed a child. Italy is a panoply of food porn and lessons about “the sweetness of doing nothing,” which is, ironically, a prerequisite for enduring this film. Liz lives in an ashram in India, mastering something vaguely resembling Eastern spiritualism. Finally, Liz returns to Bali to learn at the foot of an aged medicine man, Tutti (Anakia Lapae), but ends up raising enough money to build a home for a single mother, giddily rebuffing the advances of a naked surfer boy, and shacking up with Felipe (Javier Bardem), an exotic, scruffy Brazilian and fellow divorcee.

That the film is visually stunning comes as no surprise given the involvement of Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson. At age 42, Roberts still lights up the screen with her nostalgic mix of radiance and charm. And, as an American expat searching for redemption in India, Richard Jenkins takes his limited screen-time and absolutely walks away with the film, magnificently channeling a man with a Texas lilt and a proud but shattered psyche.

Unfortunately, Eat Pray Love is also as shallow as an episode of director Ryan Murphy’s Glee. The film’s lynchpin is an emotional investment in Liz’s journey. True, many of us (not-so) secretly yearn from time to time to pull the plug on our stifling workaday. But, it is difficult to absorb the greater mystical meaning behind someone lacking financial, health, or family crises (beyond her own making) who just wants to “find herself.” No wonder Oprah Winfrey recommended the memoir to her book club and devoted two episodes of her television show and a whole section of her website to it.

Liz – and Eat Pray Love – presents a life without consequences and calls it real life. What color of wine goes best with that?

Neil Morris

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