'Eat Pray Love' feels unfulfilling

Posted: Thursday, August 26, 2010

"Eat Pray Love"

Ap Photo/Sony, Francois Duhamel
Ap Photo/Sony, Francois Duhamel
In this film publicity image released by Sony, Javier Bardem, left, and Julia Roberts are shown in a scene from "Eat Pray Love."

Columbia Pictures

2 hours, 13 minutes

Julia Roberts is a pretty girl. Sure, she's got a long face and some massive teeth, but somehow, instead of looking horsey, she beams. The reason is her attitude, her infectious smile, and her trademark laugh, coming out of nowhere and surprising it's owner as much as the rest of us. Whether you like her as an actress or not, most people would agree that Julia Roberts is fun to watch.

Her new film, "Eat Pray Love," certainly gives you plenty of opportunity to watch the actress -- she's in almost every scene and often the camera is full-frame on her face; Julia, 70 feet high, looking down on you. This begs the question, why pick such an ebullient actress for such a somber role?

I shouldn't say somber, necessarily. It's not like the film is one, two-and-a-half-hour-long funeral. Instead, think of it as a two-and-a-half-hour-long divorce. Julia plays Liz Gilbert, a travel writer who has just realized that her marriage to Stephen, played a little eccentrically by Billy Crudup, is stifling her unbearably. Liz wants to be on the move, having adventures, opening herself up to the universe. And so, she leaves Stephen for David, a small-time stage actor played perpetually sleepy-eyed by James Franco.

The act of bailing on Stephen shakes her to her core and this pseudo-spritual thespian seems just the ticket. But David, despite his adherence to meditation, Hinduism, and Oriental teak furniture, is a little stifling himself. At one point he tells Liz, "We're not happy together, but we don't want to be away from each other. So I think we should stay together and be miserable, but happy that we're not apart."

Wow. With a barrel of laughs like that, who could blame our heroine for doing what she does next? Liz, to the horror of her friends, decides to spend a year on that oh-so-cliche quest to "find herself." She'll spend a few months in Rome, reconnecting with her intense love of food. (Oh, did I mention that she's a foodie? No? Neither does the movie.) Then, it's off to India to study with David's guru. Finally, she'll spend the last few months in Bali, where she had been on a previous travel assignment and heard a compelling prophecy from a cute little medicine man with no teeth.

What follows is exactly that, Liz's journey, where she spends the next four months hanging out with seemingly idle Italians and other foreigners in Rome. No one has a job, apparently, but everyone has plenty of money to eat fabulous food and wile away the evenings with wine and good conversation. Liz, though perpetually glum and introspective, apparently has a good time in Italy, which is what makes India seem so jarring. But go to India she does, where she lives at the ashram, and meets other sad people trying to find a way to open themselves up to the universe. Richard, played with a hokey Texas swagger, by Richard Jenkins, takes her under his wing, berating her to "just clear yer damn mind!"

India goes on for a while and, though she learns to understand Richard a little better, I'm not exactly sure what she learned about herself. And then it's on to Bali, for the "love" portion of the film. At this point you'll look at your watch and whisper to your neighbor, "how long is this thing?!"

Bali is probably the best part of the movie for two reasons: one, Liz finally learns, in a very small way, that charity is, perhaps, a part of finding balance in the universe. And two, we get to meet Felipe, a little goofy, but played with warmth and openness by the bear-like Javier Bardem. Felipe is, naturally, also divorced and terrified to love again, so he and Liz hit it off just fine. There's ups and downs and more of the little toothless soothsayer, but you can pretty much guess how it's all going to end up by the time Liz's year is over and that flight home to New York looming just around the corner.

Does the movie end with happy-Julia? Well, I won't spoil it, but suffice it to say we're owed something for the year we just spent with glum-Julia.

I can't say "Eat Pray Love" is a particularly good movie, though it is beautifully shot and has two or three very powerful moments. Richard Jenkins redeems his throw-away performance with one beautifully sad monologue, and Javier Bardem's Felipe finally brings some true emotion to the film in a scene with his son.

On the whole, however, the movie is too scattered and clunky to really affect the way it obviously imagines that it does. Liz's relationship woes are revealed mostly in flashback, usually just after she's reached whatever milestone to overcome them.

It's hard to gain sympathy for a character that way. It's also hard to feel much sympathy for someone who has the means to spend a year abroad, essentially just hanging out. I don't begrudge the rich their money, and if I had the means to spend a year in some fabulous locale, I'd seriously think about it, but it does make it a little difficult to truly relate to our heroine's struggles.

I was also bothered by the character's intense self-obsession. I get it -- she was on a quest to "find herself," and more power to her, but there's almost nothing said about the power of helping others, and, as my wife pointed out, the two small acts of charity she performs cost her almost nothing in either time or money. I think the real Liz Gilbert misses out on a serious opportunity here, as two-thirds of the film are spent in countries with some serious problems.

"Eat Pray Love" is a cool idea, that never quite makes it. The "Eat" is fun to watch, but somehow meaningless, and the "Pray" feels more like a scam than a religion (I'm not speaking of Hinduism in particular, just what was portrayed in the film). The "Love" was nice, but by the time you get there you're so exhausted from all the eating and praying that you just want to go to bed.

Grade: C+

"Eat Pray Love" is rated PG-13 for language, sensuality, and brief nudity.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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