© 2010 Ray Wong
Based on Elizabeth Gilbert's bestselling memoir/self-help/travelog, Eat Pray Love chronicles the physical. mental and emotional journey of a woman looking for something.
Liz (Julia Roberts) is trying to have a baby with husband Stephen (Billy Crudup) when she realizes something is terribly wrong with her life and her marriage. She doesn't feel anything. She has no love or passion for anything, except a strong desire to travel and see the world. She decides to call it quits, and goes through a bitter divorce with Stephen. Soon, she's entangled in a brief affair with an actor (James Franco) before she realizes she's following the same pattern and she desperately needs a change.
Against the objection of her best friend Delia (Viola Davis), she makes the decision to leave and spend a year around the world. She's going to live in Italy to eat, then in India to pray, and finally to Bali to visit a medicine man who's the reason for this awakening. And hopefully, through this experience, she would find out who she really is, and what she really wants to do with her life. And most important, to figure out the mystery of relationships.
Julia Roberts (Duplicity) is perfectly cast as Elizabeth Gilbert, who shares the actress's wispy blond hair, tall, thin frame, and personality. Roberts handles the character well (obviously getting help from Gilbert), and it's a likable if self-absorbed character. Liz Gilbert reminds me Julie in Julie & Julia, another self-absorbed writer who is a bit on the whiny side. Roberts does her best with the character, and her performance is commendable, if a bit underplayed.
The large supportive cast is generally superb. Billy Crudup (Watchmen) plays Gilbert's husband, Stephen, an equally self-absorbed man-child. He does his best with the thinly drawn character. Viola Davis (Knight and Day) plays Gilbert's supportive but skeptical best friend solidly. James Franco (The Pineapple Express) is loose and affecting as Gilbert's much-younger boyfriend -- a New York actor who introduces her to Indian spiritual healing.
Tuva Novotny (Dear Alice) is bubbly and cute as a Swedish expat who befriends Gilbert in Rome, and Luca Argentero (Our Country) is charming as Gilbert's Italian tutor. But the standouts are Richard Jenkins (Let Me In) and Javier Bardem (Vicky Christina Barcelona). Jenkins plays a fellow seeker at the Indian retreat Gilbert's staying; he has one of the most touching moments as he recounts his past. Give the guy an Oscar already! And Bardem is extraordinarily sweet and charming as Felipe, a Brazilian businessman who falls in love with Gilbert in Bali.
Director-writer Ryan Murphy (Glee) and Jennifer Salt (Nip/Tuck) have the daunting job of adapting Gilbert's nonfiction self-help book into a coherent story. While they succeed in streamlining the narrative into a plot, the translation loses Gilbert's unique voice. Even at almost two and a half hour, there are parts of the movie that feel rushed and underdeveloped. For example, we never really get a clear idea why Liz and Stephen's marriage falls apart. And Liz comes off as a selfish brat when Stephen asks her, "Why can't you work on finding yourself while still in this marriage?" She offers no answer. The same is true with Liz and her actor boyfriend, David. There is no development, except a vague notion that they simply don't belong together.
That makes the ending rather superficial, when Liz and Felipe fall in love. What makes this relationship different than the ones she had with Stephen and David? I have no clue. The writers spend too much time detailing Liz's experiences in Rome, India and Bali, but not enough time letting us understand Liz's true dilemmas and her arc. What has she learned in 12 months? What transformation has she made? At the end, it seems like she just jumps into another relationship anyway, meanwhile saying, "I'm ready for love again." Huh?
There are also logical and chronological gaps. I mean, Liz has been in Rome for two weeks and she still hasn't experienced the local cuisines yet? And when she arrives in India, she seems totally lost as if she had no idea what she was supposed to do there. Well, so much for planning. Also, the script fails to mention Liz got an advance on a book proposal and that's how she could afford to go on this year-long odyssey and write about it. It's an important point (maybe to the detriment of Liz's story, but still, it's important) that the screenwriters so eagerly ignored.
Murphy's direction is rather good, though. The cinematography is gorgeous and the production is pristine and it flows well. The movie drags in places, though -- as I said, I'd rather he spend more time developing the relationships than taking us on a guided tour. There are times when I don't understand the point other than showing us how delicious Italian food is (duh!).
Still, once Liz goes on her journey, the sceneries are breathtaking. Although we don't know what Liz has learned in Italy (other than to speak better Italian, to appreciate pleasure and "the joy of doing nothing"), it sure makes us want to eat lots of pastas and pizzas, and drink wine. As charming as the locales are, the story lacks the charm and sparks of other "travelog" stories such as Under the Tuscan Sun or Letters to Juliet. The writing simply isn't up to the challenge.
Eat Pray Love is long on philosophical musing and self-gratifying discoveries and short on truly profound understanding. It's beautiful to look at and the food makes me want to go to nearest bistro. The performances are across the board excellent. But it lacks a true impact. It feels like a long, drawn-out therapy session, and at the end, we still don't quite know what the character has learned. At first, I eat it up, then I pray for it to end, and finally I just don't love it.
Stars: Julia Roberts, Billy Crudup, Viola Davis, James Franco, Javier Bardem, Richard Jenkins, Tuva Novotny, Luca Argentero
Director: Ryan Murphy
Writers: Ryan Murphy, Jennifer Salt (based on book by Elizabeth Gilbert)
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for strong language, sexual references and male rear nudity
Running Time: 133 minutes
Script – 6
Performance – 8
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 9
Editing – 8
Production – 8
Total – 7.2 out of 10