Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel Eat Pray Love, going by the user reviews on Amazon.com, is a book that has polarized readers: many find it inspirational, thoughtful, even life-changing, others find it boring and self-absorbed.
Unread by me (and unlikely to be read in the future), I’m guessing I’d fall in with the boring and self-absorbed crowd, because Eat Pray Love is also the most excruciatingly torturous cinematic experience in recent memory. Yes, it’s more painful to sit through than Sex and the City 2.
Liz Gilbert (Julia Roberts) is depressed, lost in life, searching for answers. I think most will reach this crisis at some point in their lives. The majority will have to deal with it during the course of their everyday lives, and probably have bigger problems to deal with than finding inner peace.
The rich will see a psychiatrist. The über-elite will take a year out of their lives, travel to Italy to eat, India to pray (or meditate, rather) and Bali to fall in love, claim to have solved all their problems, and then write a bestselling book about it.
So Liz Gilbert is lost. This isn’t the first time, because she’s already been to Bali and seen the prophetic Ketut (Hadi Subiyanto), who didn’t solve her problems but told her that she’d be back. Hey, good business; as long as Liz believes in him, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. So she drops her loving husband of eight years (Billy Crudup), has a fling with a soulful actor (James Franco) and then dumps him too, and then she’s off to Italy.
In Italy, she does the tourist thing, eats a lot of pizza and pasta, and makes some new friends, including Sofi (Tuva Novotny) and Giovanni (Luca Argentero). Then she’s off to India, where she tries to meditate, and gets some bumper sticker life advice from Richard (Richard Jenkins), the most interesting character in the movie. And then back to Bali and Ketut, where she meets handsome expat Felipe (Javier Bardem).
Most movies go from A to B. Eat Pray Love goes from ? to ?. It’s basically a travelogue: Liz goes here, does this, sees that. But everything is arbitrary, nothing is explained. The goal, I presume, the point of the movie, is to find inner peace.
But what she lacks in the beginning is unclear, and what she has gained by the end is even more unclear. She seems exactly the same. Equally vague is every single step of her journey: why does she go here, specifically? How is this supposed to help? Does it help? All questions I cannot answer from the movie alone.
There is nothing – nothing – in this movie to engage the audience. No plot, no story; just a vague and unsatisfying journey that promises enlightenment and delivers nothing. Not even fortune cookie-level advice. “Here’s what this rich writer did, and it seemed to help her,” the movie seems to be saying. “Now good luck with your own problems.”
It’s not all bad. The cinematography by Robert Richardson is Oscar-level stuff, and it’s not just the exotic locales (which look stunning) and the food (which looks delicious), but also the framing and composition of individual shots, which is impeccable. There’s also some extended single-shot steadicam work, which I was surprised to see here. On a technical side, the rest of the film is similarly first-rate.
But being technically well-made is not enough. A film has certain requirements at a script level that Eat Pray Love simply does not meet; it’s agonizing to sit through, as if you’re watching a bad pseudo-metaphysical self-help book, and claustrophobic, because you cannot simply stop reading it. I was writhing in my seat for the entire 2:15 runtime.
And Liz Gilbert, as presented here, is an awful, awful person: she goes through the movie expecting help from everyone that surrounds her, and gives nothing back. Even a charitable cause at the end is almost entirely about her.
Roberts, always a likable actress, cannot overcome such gaping character flaws. Director Ryan Murphy doesn’t help with long, lingering close-ups that accentuate her always-parodied facial features; during some scenes, her mouth threatens to swallow the whole screen.