Julia Roberts Learns How to ‘Eat Pray Love’

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Average: 3.7 (3 votes)
HollywoodChicago.com Oscarman rating: 3.5/5.0
Rating: 3.5/5.0

CHICAGO – Despite its flaws, the often-beautiful “Eat Pray Love,” starring Julia Roberts, works because it refuses to talk down to its audience. This is the rare “chick flick” that treats its demographic with respect, never becoming the sentimental or manipulative dreck that so many other filmmakers would have delivered from Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling memoirs.

As all adapters of first-person memoirs do, Ryan Murphy and co-writer Jennifer Salt faced an uphill battle when they attempted to translate expressed inner thoughts into external behavior. In written form, Gilbert was able to directly convey the feelings and experiences of the year abroad in which she learned to “Eat Pray Love.” With the narration gone, Murphy must translate those experiences and feelings into the actions of his lead, a few bits of self-help dialogue, and a nice monologue here and there.

Eat Pray Love
Eat Pray Love
Photo credit: Sony Pictures

With that in mind, it’s undeniable that Murphy’s film boils complex issues down to their bare essentials. But, then again, doesn’t a book that simplifies learning experiences into eating, praying, and loving do the same? Whether you consider it a flaw of the source material or Murphy’s adaptation, some will see the film as surface-level, greeting-card sentiments about the difficulty of moving from one important chapter of life to another, but I think that’s a knee-jerk criticism that ignores what works about the film. With its handling of adult issues uncommon in the romantic drama genre, an excellent supporting cast, and gorgeous cinematography from one of the best cameramen in the world (regular Martin Scorsese collaborator Robert Richardson), “Eat Pray Love” works on its own terms. It’s not a full meal, but it’s a satisfying one.

The “appetizer” is easily the most undercooked section of this cinematic meal as the opening act is seriously truncated from what I’ve heard about Gilbert’s book and starts the film off on something of an inconsistent note. Liz (Julia Roberts) got married young and has reached a crossroads in her life where she realizes that she and her husband (an effective Billy Crudup) are going to take different paths. After a bitter divorce, Liz meets a hunky young stage actor (James Franco) but soon discovers that jumping from a long-term relationship into what is clearly a short-term one isn’t going to satisfy her.

As people often do, Liz realizes that internal peace might take an external force and so she heads off on a trip around the world. The opening act of “Eat Pray Love” feels hurried and incomplete, which drains Liz’s journey of a little bit of its purpose. I’ve heard the dissolution of the marriage is painful in the book but it almost feels perfunctory in the film; something to get out of the way before Julia can get to the eating, praying, and loving.

Eat Pray Love
Eat Pray Love
Photo credit: Sony Pictures

To that end, Liz decides that she will spend a year in Italy, India, and Thailand. It starts at a broken-down flat in Rome and it’s not long before this beautiful woman has made a number of beautiful friends. Considering a theme of the story seems to be that the internal is much more important than the external, it’s a bit disappointing that Liz is constantly surrounded by beautiful people, especially in the Italy chapter. I’m not sure that if I went to Rome for a few months that I would have the same luck with complete strangers in cafes.

After learning the empowerment that comes with ditching calorie-counters in Italy, Liz heads off to India and the underdeveloped film starts to come into the light. She meets a man named Richard (the amazing and nomination-worthy Richard Jenkins) and tries to learn the importance of removing clutter from your mind to find peace. As she lets go, she heads to Bali and finds love (with Javier Bardem) and learns lessons from the mystical medicine man who inspired the entire journey in the first place.

Clearly, there are elements of Murphy’s film that are a bit frustrating due to the surface-level nature of the source material. Having said that, the film works on its own terms. Richardson’s cinematography is consistently beautiful without being showy. There are no shots of the Taj Majal or the Sistine Chapel. Richardson finds a way to shoot the story intimately while not losing the international majesty of the gorgeous locations.

Eat Pray Love
Eat Pray Love
Photo credit: Sony Pictures

Roberts is good but it’s a very difficult role in that she’s essentially an existential straight-woman. She’s forced to listen and respond more than DO, which is probably a flaw of the source material and script more than Roberts’ performance. When she finally does get fired up near the end, Roberts nails it but I think she could have found more of that passion in the first two acts.

Luckily, the slight hollowness at the core is more than offset by two of the best supporting performances of the year from Jenkins and Bardem. They are both simply spectacular. They alone make the film worth seeing. They are SO good that, while it may not be the intended lesson of its source material, one could almost read the moral of the film as “get out and meet new people.” Actually, that’s not a bad message in a season dominated by films with characters not worth meeting.

‘Eat Pray Love’ stars Julia Roberts, Viola Davis, Billy Crudup, James Franco, Richard Jenkins, and Javier Bardem. It was adapted from the book by Liz Gilbert by Ryan Murphy & Jennifer Salt and directed by Murphy.

HollywoodChicago.com content director Brian Tallerico

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