Eat Pray Love

WFTB Score: 3/20

The plot: Reeling from the breakdown of her marriage and finding her new relationship unfulfilling, travel writer Liz Gilbert takes the journey of her life, visiting Rome, India and Bali in an epic voyage of self-discovery. While Rome and India are perfect for, respectively, eating and praying, is she ready to find love in Bali?

Writer Liz Gilbert (Julia Roberts) is used to strange experiences on her travels, so ordinarily wouldn’t set too much store by palm reader Ketut’s (Hadi Subiyanto) prophecy that she’ll be married twice and will be back in Bali before too long, teaching the old man English. However, back in New York she finds cause for concern: her career-phobic husband Stephen (Billy Crudup) starts to look definitively incompatible; and although young, fit actor David (James Franco) can offer her a different kind of devotion than the sort he offers to his Indian Guru, she’s still not happy.

As soon as Stephen reluctantly grants her a divorce, Liz decides to take a three-part voyage of self discovery: to Rome, where she nourishes her body with the help of friends including Sofi (Tuva Novotny); then to India to nourish her spirituality, where she instantly impresses bride-to-be Tulsi (Rushita Singh) but finds hard-bitten Texan Richard (Richard Jenkins) a tougher nut to crack. Finally, she returns to Bali for a spot of menial work, running into Brazilian Felipe (Javier Bardem) who offers a different sort of nourishment entirely; but can her new-found calm accommodate a new-found man too, especially one with his own complications?

There’s no reason why you should, but if you ever wonder what Hollywood types consider to be a representation of real life, here’s your answer. Eat Pray Love is the simple tale of a simple woman who – despite having a husband who loves her, a toyboy who loves her, a successful writing career and enough money to go where she wants when she wants, still feels unfulfilled. And it’s tough, you know, because you go abroad, you make new friends who instantly adore you, you stuff your face, you tame wild elephants, you buy poor people – who love you – houses, you…

Sorry, I can’t keep this up. Eat Pray Love is almost nothing more than a self-aggrandizing exercise in the power of self-admiration, in the goodness of wealthy white people spreading money over the less fortunate, the less free, and thereby assuaging their own guilt at the fact that many of their lovely holiday destinations are full of humans living in poverty and danger (there’s a weird reference to the Bali bombing, which may have been advertising).

It’s certainly not much of a movie. Apart from the decent cinematography – and how hard can it be to make Rome and Bali look good, and India bustling? – this is not a film in any recognisable sense of the word. There’s no plot, merely a horrible, self-centred travelogue of one entitled woman’s rancid ramblings about how nice places in the world make her feel slightly less miserable. I’d never mock anyone’s spirituality and I’m sure what the real Liz Gilbert learnt in India made her feel a lot better about herself; but why inflict it upon the public?

It’s not even structured like a proper film, just a collection of holiday movies pasted on top of each other. Even the whole point of the exercise – Liz finding ‘balance’ then losing it to gain happiness – is completely mishandled: she spends over two hours getting to her exalted state, but the movie still ends without any real resolution whatsoever. She could have been pecked to death on that island; they might have fallen out over his personal hygiene; whatever.

What’s more, Eat Pray Love is so obsessed with Gilbert/Roberts that it completely fails to enlighten the viewer about the places she visits. I’ve not spent more than a couple of weeks in Italy, including five-and-a-bit days in Rome, but I can assure you that this movie presents a horribly and insultingly simplistic view of the city and the country’s people and outlook on life, if such a thing can even be said to exist of a whole nation. If I were to take this film’s lead, I might equally say that the movie’s lazy sketches of entire populaces are as much as notoriously tiny American minds can handle – but I wouldn’t be so mean.

The quality of the acting is all but irrelevant. It’s not that Roberts is bad, but she can’t make such an unrelatable character interesting or sympathetic (she’s been here before, of course, in My Best Friend’s Wedding). Everyone else is merely a mirror to give a greater reflected glow to the sun that shines out of her… well, you get the picture. If only there was any sense of Gilbert growing through the film, in confidence or self-respect; as it is, Gilbert/Roberts is so utterly fantastic throughout that the only thing she needs is a mantra to help her cope with her own brilliance – and a quiet beach. Richard Jenkins has the film’s single decent scene, in which he reveals his own pain; yes, it’s also self-inflicted, but at least he projects his feelings outwards.

Confession time: I’d only heard bad things about Eat Pray Love before watching it. On the other hand, I can only repeat what I’ve said elsewhere, that I watch every film with an open mind, hoping for the best. I hoped that following Liz’s journey might turn out to be surprisingly affecting or inspirational, but over the course of more than two excruciating hours it became clear that this movie’s intended audience is either Gilbert alone, or the rarefied section of society in which she lives, for whom endless holidays at the time and location of their choosing are a pleasant fact of life. It’s certainly not for us plebs.

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