A negative review of Eat Pray Love practically writes itself. Just look at the premise: An upper-middle-class white Manhattanite (Julia Roberts) who ends her mediocre marriage to a guy who looks like Billy Crudup has an affair with a twentysomething hunk who looks like James Franco embarks on a year-long quest of emotional and spiritual healing by spending four months apiece in Italy, India, and Indonesia (where she has an affair with a guy who looks like Javier Bardem). You don’t even have to see the thing to prepare the requisite objections: the unthinking privilege of the setup; the encounters with third-world experience as lessons in solving first-world malaise; the reduction of culture to a series of shopworn visual trinkets (Italy = food! India = meditation! Indonesia = meditation and the beach!).
But might these assumptions be clichés in their own right, I thought as I settled into my seat? Can’t it be just as wearisome to hear critics chiding films for their lack of self-awareness and sophistication as it is to watch the films themselves? As the lights dimmed, I tried to embark on my own version of the film’s journey, attempting to clear my mind of preconceptions and seeing where the flow of the universe took me.
I’ll be damned if it didn’t end up taking me exactly where I thought it would, though one leaves more indifferent than incensed. Eat Pray Love isn’t an offensive film, but it is a shallow and antsy one, in possession of a modicum of self-awareness that could be fruitfully explored if director Ryan Murphy stopped bustling from picturesque landscape shots to crisply lit close-ups of a pensive Roberts and back again. Murphy, who also co-adapted Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling memoir with Jennifer Salt, seems to understand the inherent hurdles here, and offers a series of characters along the way that question and prod at Gilbert’s path toward self-realization. Soon-to-be-ex-husband Stephen (Crudup) isn’t a lout so much as a charming and directionless blank slate, making Liz’s decision to end the marriage a less than obvious choice. Best friend Delia (Viola Davis) offers predictable but nevertheless sound observations about Liz’s habitual need for male companionship after running from Stephen into the arms of laidback actor David (Franco).
That Murphy needs to use these characters to point out Liz’s flaws, however, speaks to the larger issue that we rarely know or feel Liz’s inner developments without having them explicitly verbalized by others or by Liz herself via a lazy, Carrie Bradshaw-lite voiceover. And once Gilbert begins her trip, Eat Pray Love often becomes little more than a busy mélange of tourist porn and pseudo-spiritual insights, as if the Times travel section and Parade Magazine got together and produced photogenic, thoroughly forgettable offspring. The Italy section feels strongest, mostly because Murphy seems liberated by the locale’s relative lack of socio-cultural baggage and can therefore indulge whole-heartedly in images of sun-kissed piazzas and heaping bowls of fresh pasta (shot with succulent elegance by DP Robert Richardson).
And there is indeed pleasure to be had here, particularly when Murphy slows down and lets a moment unfold in all its languid, poignant layers. Such a scene occurs late in the Italian section, when Liz and her makeshift family of Italian and expat friends gather for a traditional American Thanksgiving but forget to thaw the turkey before mealtime. We cut post-feast to everyone napping on couches and chairs, the camera patiently tracking from one sleeping face to another as Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” plays pleasantly, if somewhat inexplicably, on the soundtrack. Liz is awoken by the sound of a ringing timer, and it’s then we realize that they’ll be having turkey after all. It’s a small moment, perhaps indulgent in theory, but it has the ineffable, leisurely glow of a lazy, late afternoon that’s surprisingly hard to capture. So much else of Eat Pray Love fails to achieve these grace notes, with Murphy constructing whole scenes out of gliding camera movements and his trademark cut-cut-cut interludes that insist upon their own luxuriousness but feel fussy rather than serene. (Somehow, the act of pouring a glass of wine or savoring spaghetti gets chopped up into five or six rapid-fire edits.)
And once we move onto India and Indonesia, Eat Pray Love must take on the additional task of dealing with the respective countries’ cultural realities while still maintaining what is essentially a fantasy of rejuvenation through contact with pure-hearted locals. Subplots like Liz devoting her daily meditative prayers to the happiness of spunky Indian girl Tulsi (Rushita Singh) as she unhappily enters an arranged marriage have moments of sweetness, but too often feel like an overly calculated way of acknowledging the wider world while still making it all about Liz (she dolefully recalls her own wedding day while at Tulsi’s nuptials).
The film gets on somewhat surer footing when Liz befriends fellow travelers, first crusty but kind-hearted Richard in India (Richard Jenkins, always welcome) and then seductive yet sensitive Felipe (Bardem) in Bali. Murphy’s filmmaking feels most engaged in these moments, slowing the film’s rhythm to savor Roberts’s rapport with both actors.
What’s inevitably lost is any real attempt to track Liz’s internal shifts, the way her travels jostle her preconceived notions of selfhood and spirituality. Yes, we technically “know” when such epiphanies occur, but they come to us though predigested emotional beats rather than the more ambiguous push-and-pull that marks actual change. Murphy is an admittedly weird choice for the material; he seems better at charting the divide between the external and internal self, a la Glee‘s reality/fantasy balancing act, than mapping the subtle recalibrations of a soul in transition. It makes it all the more disappointing, then, that moments that could use some fantastical pizzazz—like Liz’s brushes with a divine inner voice, or her imagined reconciliation with Stephen—feel so aesthetically pedestrian and earthbound.
And what about Roberts? On the one hand, she seems to be slumming a bit here, hitting the same notes of ambivalent melancholy and cautious excitement throughout. Yet there are moments when this manageable wistfulness dips into something more despondent and harsh. It’s a quality that Roberts has explored before to intriguing effect (as in her flinty turns in Closer and Duplicity), and when it flashes through in Eat Pray Love, one can’t help but think of the better movie that might have grappled with that cool anger beneath the smiling surface. Such a film would need to have the double vision that so many good movies about self-discovery through travel share: to see both the world and the individual experiencing it with clear, attentive eyes. But Eat Pray Love‘s viewpoint is a gauzy and narrow one, removing its rose-colored glasses only to better gaze at its own navel.