Eat Pray Love is both the title of Ryan Murphy’s latest film, and a succinct synopsis of its entire contents. That trio of verbs represent the depth of our lead character (she will indeed do all those things) and the extent of the film’s plot (she will do these things in this exact order). I certainly wasn’t a fan of this Julia Roberts self-help vehicle, but I can’t say I wasn’t warned. In fact, I’d argue that Eat Pray Love is the most accurate three-word title since The Human Centipede. If only all bad films could condense their storyline into an easy to digest (and subsequently, ignore) linguistic threesome. Twilight could be renamed Sulky Shiny Shirtless; The Expendables would have been more appropriately dubbed Watch Careers Die.
Of course, I can’t merely end a review by reiterating that our heroine Ate, Prayed and Loved (although, fans of Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir upon which the film is based may want to check out now). Allow me to elaborate. Eat Pray Love is a two hour and fifteen minute ad for being rich; it’s a smug, patronising travelogue that – despite its already apt title – could have also been called First World Problems: The Movie. Now, I’m all for movies that examine existential angst and urban malaise. But if you want me to engage with the protagonist, I’m going to need to see them deal with their issues, not run away and hang out with some international stereotypes. What would Woody Allen’s Manhattan be if all the characters left New York and dispersed themselves across the globe instead of diving into the muck of their relationships? (Well, it probably wouldn’t still be called Manhattan).
Julia Roberts stars as Liz Gilbert, an affluent writer recovering from a recent divorce (from Billy Crudup) and an even more recent breakup (with James Franco). Having forgotten who she really is after a lifetime of complicated romantic entanglements, she decides go on a year-long sojourn to Italy, India and Bali. While in Italy, she befriends a bunch of gesticulating caricatures (where-ah everyone-ah speaks-ah like-ah this-ah). Over in India, she joins an Ashram and is schooled on the clearing of one’s mind by a prickly Texan (Richard Jenkins) – which, I’ll admit, is the film’s best sequence. Finally, in Bali, she acts as protégé to a medicine man (Hadi Subiyanto); that is, until she’s distracted by the romantic advances of a Brazilian expat (Javier Bardem).
The lessons that Liz learns throughout the film are vague and uninteresting: meditate for 20 minutes a day, find your balance, love yourself etc. I half expected Inconvenient Truth-style fact sheets to be handed out upon exiting the theatre. It is as insightful and real-world applicable as The Secret, which is to say, it is no way insightful or real-world applicable. I don’t know what to think of a character who absconds to gorgeous destinations and undergoes some unseen transformation in their head. Maybe the trip worked for Elizabeth Gilbert in real life; I’m happy for her. The fact of the matter is, as a character, she’s far more interesting when she’s trying to figure out what to do with her life in New York than when she’s eating a pizza in Rome.
The film is indeed gorgeous to behold, but it’s indicative of its complete lack of depth and meaning. Liz’s exploits in Italy, India and Bali look breathtaking … but so does America, supposedly the prison of her soul. Brief walks down the sidewalks of New York are lit as lusciously as a bike-ride in the Balinese fields. It feels as if the film was shot from within a sunbed; there is more lens flare here than there was in Star Trek. Clearly, Murphy is not trying to tell a story with his filmmaking. This is an extreme example, but there is a reason why The Wizard of Oz begins in black and white, only to later explode into Technicolor. The only reason Eat Pray Love looks the way it does is because it’s pretty. But that only makes the film feel more hollow; more insincere. The closest Murphy comes to telling a story with his filmmaking is during the film’s chapter in Italy (and yes, the film is divided into episodic, plodding chapters). He cuts together footage of a young couple passionately making out, with footage of Liz ravishing a plate of spaghetti. As if we weren’t already flooded with comparisons between this film and holiday-porn.
The cast do their best, and they succeed in being charming enough to not make the whole ordeal feel like such a slog, but the disingenuousness of the film’s spiritual journey is overwhelming. I’m reminded of another recent break-up flick – Forgetting Sarah Marshall – in which both parties retreat to a holiday destination to deal with their depression. In that film, we see both the man and woman actually working through their issues (separately and together); they make mistakes, they grow, they bond with new friends, they forge new relationships. But by the end of the film, they’re still broken. That is a real movie. I was also reminded of I’m Still Here – The Lost Year of Joaquin Phoenix (a first world problem movie if ever there was one). Although Phoenix plays a fake version of himself, his character undergoes a genuine spiritual transition, but only after sinking to absolute rock-bottom in front of the entire world.
I’m not saying all films about self-discovery must go to such extremes. But Eat Pray Love doesn’t even try. Like its main character, it runs away from reality, headfirst into faux-spirituality. And let’s face it: Liz doesn’t deal with her issues by eating as many carbs as she want and spending time at an ashram in silence. She throws money at her problems. Even when she discovers a kindly Balinese masseuse who can’t afford her own house, she sends an email to her fellow white-guilt-afflicted friends and essentially says “send money”. Fine. Whatever it takes for you to love yourself.
Eat Pray Love arrives in Australian cinemas October 7, 2010.