Eat Pray Love (2010): Ryan Murphy’s Superficial, Fluffy Globe-Trotting Self-Discovery, Starring Julia Roberts

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As an actress, Julia Roberts has a dominant, charismatic presence and a quick, intelligent mind, but she deserves much better than what she gets in Ryan Murphy’s “Eat Pray Love,” a superficial and fluffy globe-trotting tale of an odyssey aimed at self-discovery.

Roberts plays Elizabeth (Liz) Gilbert, the author of the 2006 book of the same title, which was on the N.Y. Times best-selling list for a long time and was greeted with equal measure of acclaim (Oprah chose it for her book club) and criticism (even derision).
 
Gilbert’s memoir, sort of a self-help manuscript of how to live better and be happier with yourself and with the world around you, has achieved extraordinary success, selling over 6.2 million copies in the U.S. and overseas; it has been translated into 40 languages. 
 
Unfortunately, the book has fallen into the hands of the wrong director, Ryan Murphy (of TV’s fame “Glee”), who is also credited as co-writer (with Jennifer Salt) of the screenplay, based on Gilbert’s book.  Though assisted by a great cinematographer, Robert Richardson, Murphy has created many beautiful and appealing images, which lack emotional resonance because of his shallow, misguided approach to the literary source.
 
The film offers some guilty pleasure but it’s overall frustrating. Considering that Julia Roberts is in almost every scene, at the end of this colorful, exotic saga, she remains vague as far as motivations, transformations, and personality are concerned.  In general, the spiritual elements, despite multiple prayers and allusions to God, remain underdeveloped, and only occasionally do we get a real sense of the enlightenment, relief and peace of mind that spiritualism is expected to bring about.
 
It’s doubly disappointing that “Eat Pray Love” drags on and on, from region to region, from culture to culture, from man to man, ultimately overextending its welcome by at least a good half an hour (running time is 2 hours and 20 minutes).
 
Though she clearly belongs to the upper-middle class—after all, how many people can afford to travel around the world for one year–the movie is imbued with a middle-brow therapeutic sensibility, a result of Murphy’s dumbing down the book’s text.  Indeed, I can see how some meditation and chanting scenes, which are systematically (and boringly) interspersed throughout the tale, might become the material of comedians’ jokes on late night shows.
 
What should have been a poignant, witty, breezy travelogue becomes in the hands of Murphy a draggy, slow-paced feature (with lots of close ups and reaction shots of Roberts and everybody else). The movie takes its time, to say the least, and in the process becomes repetitious and even tedious. Here is one presumably wondrous voyage that, at the end, makes you weary instead of being exhilarated.
 
The story begins when Liz is living with Stephen (Billy Crudup), her hubby of eight years, but realizing that she’s entrapped in a loveless, unfulfilling marriage. To his shock and resentment, she seeks divorce and decides to embark on a trip around the world on a noble quest to rediscover and reconnect her inner self and thus achieve a new sense of balance. A girl just wants to have some fun? Not exactly.
Liz takes a year-long sabbatical from her job, uncharacteristically stepping out of her comfort zone. The movie would like us to believe that Liz is risking everything in order to change her life. But what exactly is she risking?  She is well to do and her trip is financed by an advance for a book. Perhaps she’s risking only her best friend, Delia Shiraz (played by the always reliable Viola Davis), who repreents the voice of reason and is given some of the film’s wittiest lines. 
In her wondrous and exotic travels, she experiences the “simple” and “basic” pleasures of life. Simple and simplistic are key words, for each of the three different geographical regions stands for one thing (and one thing only). Italy for food. India for prayer, and, finally, Bali for love and inner peace.
In her 40s, Julia Roberts is about a decade older than Liz Gilbert was when she embarked on her journey, which is not a major a problem. Roberts looks terrifi–her angular face is made for the camera–in all the various costumes designed for her.  What is problematic, though, is the overly episodic structure of the narrative, which lacks sharp focus and dramatic energy. Most of the scenes are way too short to convey any real feeling, or what these specific events meant for the author.
Let me be more specific. The tale is divided into four parts of equal duration, beginning with a prologue in Bali, where Gilbert meets a guru whose predictions and reading have a fateful effect on her. The story then jumps to six month later.  Back in New York, Gilbert is at a complete loss. There is a good, touching moment, in which she kneels down and asks God for help–literally: “Please tell me what to do.”.
Divorce is granted and Liz finds herself in an all-embracing affair with a sexy, younger actor, David Piccolo (James Franco)—and unhappy again.  Lo and behold, she decides to start over, go back to the basics of life in countries as diverse as Italy, India, and Indonesia.
I’d like to dwell on Gilbert’s relationships with four men, only one of which is resonant. Significantly, it’s the one that’s not romantic, with Richard Jenkins in India.  It’s only in these sequences that we get closer to Liz’s inner thoughts and feelings.
Though there are brief flashbacks (one of Gilbert’s wedding and the song chosen for the first dance), we never get a solid idea of what kind of marriage she had, what were the emotional and sexual foundations of that bond (after all it lasted eight years and we can’t assume that she was in misery the whole time). 
Nor do we get a sense of the sex life Liz has with the next beau, David Piccolo, who courts her and treats her like a lady. In general, the film is short in depicting sex and sexuality between Liz and all the men in her life, two dimensions that must  have been crucial in her voyage of self-discovery.  
Why was Ryan Murphy chosen as writer-director? Despite his currently critical and popular success with the TV hit “Glee,” Murphy had already made one bad movie, “Running With Scissors,” in 2006, also based on a popular memoir. As a co-writer, he goes for warm, often snappy but shallow one-liners, and the subjective narration is also uneven, running all the way from the personal and significant to the most trivial.
Gilbert’s journey is propelled by feelings of guilt (her husband still loves her), depression, alienation, and lack of self-worth. But under the helm of Murphy, the film comes across as a romantic comedy a la Woody Allen, with far and remote locals substituting for Manhattan.  
Fans of the book will be disappointed.  As a Hollywood movie, “Eat Pray Love” goes out of its way to be upbeat and inspirational to other young to middle-aged confused women, who lack identity and self-esteem. However, what we get on screen is a pleasant and seductive but quite shallow depiction of a self-centered woman who presumably goes through major existential and spiritual crisis.  
To borrow a metaphor from the film, “Eat Pray Love” is like attending a sexy, glossy party in which the drinks and the appetizers are great, but the main course is lousy, leaving you craving for a real, substantial meal.
Cast
 
Liz Gilbert – Julia Roberts
David Piccolo – James Franco
Richard From Texas – Richard Jenkins
Delia Shiraz – Viola Davis
Stephen – Billy Crudup
Felipe – Javier Bardem
 
Credits
A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures presentation of a Plan B Entertainment production.
Produced by Dede Gardner.
Executive producers, Brad Pitt, Jeremy Kleiner, Stan Wlodkowski.
Directed by Ryan Murphy. Screenplay, Murphy, Jennifer Salt, based on the book by Elizabeth Gilbert.
Camera, Robert Richardson.
Editor, Bradley Buecker.
Music, Dario Marianelli; music supervisor, PJ Bloom.
Production designer, Bill Groom; art director, Charles V. Beal; set decorators, Andrew Baseman (New York), Raffaella Giovannetti, Letizia Santucci (Italy), Seema Kashyap (India), Ida Yuliasti Rachmad (Indonesia).
Costume designer, Michael Dennison.
Sound, Drew Kunin; supervising sound editor, Chic Ciccolini III; re-recording mixers, Michael Minkler, Tony Lamberti.
Visual effects supervisor, Beau Cameron; visual effects, Ockam’s Razor, Beau Studios.
Special effects supervisor, Daniel Acon; special effects coordinator, Adam Howarth; stunt coordinator, Jeff Habberstad; line producers, Ute Leonhardt, Marco Valerio Pugini (New York), Tabrez Noorani (India), Neil Ravan (Indonesia); associate producers, Pravesh Sahni (India), Gary Hayes (Indonesia).
Assistant director, Scott Robertson.
Second unit director, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon.
Casting, Francine Maisler.
MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 139 Minutes.