Friday, August 20, 2010

Eat Pray Love: Dour prayer

Eat Pray Love (2010) • View trailer for Eat Pray Love
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for sexual candor, brief profanity and fleeting nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.20.10
Buy DVD: Eat Pray Love • Buy Blu-Ray: Eat Pray Love [Blu-ray]

Full disclosure compels me to admit that I'm not currently a woman, nor am I likely to become one in the near future. 

This puts me at something of a gender disadvantage when attempting to discuss films such as director Ryan Murphy's current adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert's memoir, Eat Pray Love, or  reaching back a few years  director Audrey Welles' kinda-sorta 2003 adaptation of Frances Mayes' Under the Tuscan Sun
While in Italy, Liz Gilbert (Julia Roberts, center) embraces the guiltless,
senses-tingling joy to be found in sumptuous meals. She also smiles a bit. But
be warned: Roberts' signature, radiant grin gets very little exercise in this
mostly melancholy and self-indulgently gloomy drama.

Both are intended for a very precise demographic, which turned out in force during the afternoon screening of Eat Pray Love that I caught: 98 percent female, 100 percent older than 35. 

At a core emotional level, I'll never be able to empathize with some of the ways that Eat Pray Love might touch this crowd. Some things simply are too gender-specific: Fellas granted the supreme gift of silver-tongued, crowd-swaying oratory still couldn't explain the Three Stooges to their female companions. 

But I can say this much safely and honestly: I've absolutely no interest in watching a whiny, self-absorbed guy wander the world for a year while trying to "find himself" during a "crisis" of his own creation, and wrapping that same character into Julia Roberts' talented frame doesn't make the menu any more palatable. 

Mind you, I've long admired Roberts, and make a point of seeking out all her films. 

In fairness, the problems with Eat Pray Love  and there are many  have nothing to do with the acting. Roberts sells her scenes persuasively; she quite successfully got me to view Liz Gilbert as a petulant narcissist incapable of being grateful for all the blessings in her life. Acting is an art designed to provoke a reaction from the audience, and Roberts certainly provoked me; I wanted to reach into the screen, shake her by the shoulders and scream, "Perspective, woman ... perspective!

Viola Davis makes the most of her brief scenes as Gilbert's publisher and best friend, Delia Shiraz; James Franco is scruffily charming as David, the young stage actor who serves as Liz's first rebound affair. Javier Bardem is his usual swooningly debonair self as Felipe, the world's greatest divorced father; Richard Jenkins steals the film as "Richard from Texas," a guy with genuine problems who hasn't yet figured out how to forgive himself for past sins. 
All that talent aside, it always comes down to story ... and Murphy and co-scripter Jennifer Salt have done Gilbert's memoir no favors. 

Eat Pray Love wouldn't have been an easy book to adapt under any circumstances; it's simply too internal. Readers spend all their time in Gilbert's head, and the only way to convey that much intimacy  in a movie  involves plenty of voice-over. As a result, Roberts spends a lot of time narrating her character's progress, or lack thereof; we witness very little that isn't accompanied by the sort of inane color commentary that ruins many a TV sportscast. 

It becomes tiresome. Particularly since the Gilbert we meet, on screen, isn't a very interesting person to begin with. Nor does she get much better. Indeed, I'm not satisfied that she has learned  matured  when this film is over. (I'll take it on faith that the real-world Gilbert sells her epiphany more successfully in her book.) 

And let's face it: This isn't necessarily the best time to watch yet another rich white woman blithely abandon career, country and comfort for a 12-month journey of discovery to Italy, India and Bali (the book's Indonesia), with never a second thought given to how any of this is being financed. Such largess didn't play well earlier this summer, with the misfired Sex and the City sequel, and it isn't terribly palatable here, either ... even if Gilbert does do the middle portion of her soul quest on the cheap. 

At the very least, it would have been nice if Ryan and Salt had explained that Gilbert, already a successful writer, was fronted a hefty advance against the promise of the book resulting from her trip; it's a pretty important detail, considering how we're told that she "loses everything" during the divorce that precipitates her spiritual crisis. (The real-world Gilbert obviously rewarded those who trusted her with that advance, given the 6.2 million copies her subsequent book sold in the United States alone.) 

That's just one example of how sloppy Ryan and Salt are, throughout their script. In her memoir, Gilbert's unwillingness to have a baby  something she figured she'd simply be ready to do, having reached a certain age  catalyzes her further realization that she's no longer interested in being married to her husband, Stephen (Billy Crudup). I defy anybody who hasn't read the book to get this nugget of information from Ryan's film; a few vague remarks from Roberts, as she uneasily eyes Delia's newborn, don't translate into a guilt-ridden crisis regarding undesired motherhood. 

Similarly, it's hard to forgive Liz for dumping Stephen so suddenly. Crudup plays him as a bit of a class clown, somewhat at loose ends but certainly not unpleasantly so. The harshness of movie immediacy prevents our getting into Liz's head well enough  as we would, in Gilbert's book  to comprehend the angst that drives her to take this selfish, hurtful step. Crudup's Stephen gets angry, and who can blame him? 

And so off we go, into the wild blue yonder, Roberts looking radiant and glorious in a series of fetching outfits supplied by costume designer Michael Dennison. Like Audrey Hepburn and her enticing Givenchy wardrobes, Roberts always wears clothes well. 

Four months in Italy will awaken the passion of food; four months in India will cleanse Liz's soul through meditation. The final four months, in Bali, will be a postscript vacation for her new self. At least, that's the plan. 

The film almost won me over during the segment in Italy, because it's the only time I heard real truth coming from Liz. This scene takes place as she and new friend Sofi (Scandinavian actress Tuva Novotny, quite a charmer) prepare to dive into the ne plus ultra of Neapolitan-style pizzas. Sofi hesitates, conscious of the pounds she has gained from too many similarly sumptuous meals. 

Liz uncorks a passionate soliloquy on the frustrated futility of counting calories and punishing one's self with bland, boring diets, all in service of society's idealized view of perfect womanhood. She concludes by defending a woman's right to eating with unabashed joy: "I've no desire to be obese, I'm just through with the guilt." 

All delivered with the slightly self-mocking sass and fervent resolve that won Roberts her Academy Award, for Erin Brockovich

This, I suddenly thought, is a woman taking charge of her destiny, and for all the right reasons. 

Alas, not to be. Roberts goes into whimpering mode for the rest of the film, her tremulous gaze forever on the verge of tears. Meditation, while in India, seems to do Liz no good whatsoever; one almost wonders if Ryan is poking fun at the concept of protracted navel-gazing. Thank God for Jenkins, who keeps this middle portion afloat. 

Similarly, we must be grateful for Bardem and Hadi Subiyanto's scene-stealing Ketut Liyer, the aged spiritual adviser who becomes something of a father-figure to Liz while she's in Bali. Both bring zest to the lengthy film's (133 minutes) final third. 

And that, ultimately, is this picture's problem in a nutshell: Roberts' considerable charms notwithstanding, Liz Gilbert is the least interesting person in this cinematic study of her own life. She's surrounded by people who are far more intriguing, complex and legitimately conflicted; I'd far rather have spent two-plus hours with Richard, Felipe or even Delia. 

Liz Gilbert may have deserved her book, by persuasively arguing her case during its 352 pages. (The book's popularity aside, not every reader comes away convinced of that.) But the on-screen Liz Gilbert definitely doesn't deserve this movie. 

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