Food, serenity and kisses — what’s not to like? Absolutely nothing, that’s what, as millions of readers of Elizabeth Gilbert’s phenomenally successful 2006 memoir Eat, Pray, Love will attest. The high-concept structure of Gilbert’s confessional story is surely a draw: After a painful divorce, the author ships off on a yearlong international odyssey to pick up the pieces of her shattered self, touching down in Italy to eat, India to pray, and Bali to fall in love. (The love part was not on the author’s agenda until the irresistible Brazilian man she calls Felipe in the book, whom she has since married, changed her Indonesian plans.) But what’s even more seductive than the exoticism of Gilbert’s passport stamps is her ability to describe her moment-to-moment, meal-to-meal feelings with such warm, chatty, deprecating self-awareness that even her episodes of dithering, obsessing, or Where’s the rest of me? boo-hooing sound kind of…endearing. On the page, Liz Gilbert comes across as a cool friend, a smart sister, a snappy pal who seems to promise, ”If I can get myself together, so can you.” And you want to believe her. Or at least you want to chew what she’s chewing.
Eat Pray Love, the movie, directed by Glee co-creator Ryan Murphy, can’t muster the sound of Elizabeth Gilbert being Liz. It just can’t, no matter how dutifully Murphy and co-screenwriter Jennifer Salt stitch phrases from the page into the screenplay, because the very nature of movies — images come to life, words spoken out loud — is antithetical to Gilbert’s distinctive literary style, with words passed privately, silently, between the writer and her reader.
On the other hand, Eat Pray Love, the movie, has Julia Roberts as Liz Gilbert! Which is a nice choice. If anyone can make chowing down on a plate full of spaghetti look like a joyful, sensual prelude to enlightenment, it’s Roberts, who offers herself as Our Julia as generously as Gilbert connects with readers as Our Liz. Roberts’ relaxed gracefulness, whether she’s spooning gelato, folding her long legs in meditation, or bicycling through the Balinese countryside to study at the feet of a revered medicine man, is the movie’s greatest asset. Also, she wears a really pretty dress-like-the-locals wardrobe. Maybe she can travel light because she restocks her suitcase each time her plane lands.
If only Roberts’ warmth, coupled with Javier Bardem’s scruffy sexiness as Felipe, were enough to compensate for the folded-map flatness of this production. If only this glossy Eat Pray Love — an armchair journey for these staycation times — didn’t amount to a whole lot of navel-gazing about problems that, absent the author’s unique narrative language, don’t nearly fill up the 133-minute space the movie version allots. A prelude establishes the disintegration of Liz’s marriage (to a warring spouse played by Billy Crudup), which falls apart for reasons never satisfactorily explained (in the book, the author didn’t even try — the mess just was). Then it’s on to Liz’s less-than-convincing pre-divorce romance (with James Franco as a — what else? — cute young actor), which disintegrates under similar circumstances of who-knows-what. And then, All aboard!, the movie chugs from country to country, port of enlightenment to port of enlightenment, with a kind of dogged, tour-group energy. Touchdown in each locale is announced via touristic world-music selections; we know, for example, that Liz is about to meet Felipe when the samba music cues up. The director also favors ambiance shots of gesticulating Italians, scrambling street-urchin Indian kids, and gentle farming Indonesians. And he falls for a tacky, chick-flick sequence (or maybe it’s a fat-free-yogurt commercial) in which Liz and a new European girlfriend, bound by a vow to forget calorie counts and love carbs, try to zip up new jeans.
Under the circumstances, Roberts’ scenes with Six Feet Under’s (yet again) great Richard Jenkins as a fellow meditation student at her Indian ashram are almost jarring in the passionate naturalism Jenkins brings to the role — a passion that brings out Roberts’ best work here. Where Felipe and the rest of the folks Liz meets are types — the handsome Italian teacher, the unhappily betrothed Indian girl, the toothless Indonesian guru — Jenkins turns Richard From Texas into a specific soul in search of redemption. Even spouting guru-type aphorisms such as ”You want to get to the castle, you’ve got to swim the moat” (huh?), he’s a man worth circling the globe to spend time with. The rest of the passengers? After you land, you won’t keep in touch. C+