2.5 stars out of 5
Once upon a time, author Stephanie Meyers gave us Bella Swan, an arrogant, whiny, teenage girl with a penchant for sparkly vampires and shirtless werewolves.
Now we have another New York Time’s Best Selling writer Elizabeth Gilbert, who has managed to up the ante by creating a far superior self-absorbed female protagonist who’s based on no other but herself. And regrettably, this also fuels the film adaptation of Eat Pray Love; the tragic tale of a neurotic individual who seems more in need of a good drench in ice-cold water than an exotic holiday.
The sore thumb of the movie wriggles at you from the very start. Big-time author Elizabeth Gilbert, brought to life on the big screen by Julia Roberts who plays exactly the same character as her last 200 films, is having some major marital/mid-life crisis which we never truly get a sense of since she spends a good portion of her days staring wistfully into space and then morphs into a temporary religious believer in the middle of the night on her bathroom floor. There is no genuine build-up to her relationship problems, nary an explanation or indication of her so called ‘unhappiness’, so much that it’s difficult to sympathize with Elizabeth when she eventually drops the divorce bomb on her unassuming husband Stephen (a shamefully underused Billy Crudup). All we know is that this woman has issues. Deep, twisted ones. And what’s a wealthy, award-winning book writer to do? Why, abandon her perfect life, learn naughty words in Italian, engage in a short-lived affair and then shimmy off on a fancy sabbatical of ‘self-discovery’ of course.
What makes Elizabeth’s flightiness even more unbearable to watch is the contrast with the male characters in her story. Stephen is painfully sweet, if slightly thick-headed, when he attempts to save their marriage and talk things through like a rational adult. In the meantime his drama-queen of an ex-wife agonizes over her own petty problems of not getting enough me-time. And David (earnestly carved out by a charismatic James Franco) a much younger, Yogi-devoting, struggling actor who ultimately becomes nothing but a notch in her bedpost, comes across as generous and accepting towards Elizabeth’s frequent emotional tirades.
But the real fun begins when Little Miss Gilbert leaves America. She makes her first stop in Italy, where she meets fellow blonde-haired traveler Sofi (Tuva Novotny) and they bond over pasta, pizza and Elizabeth’s vacuous little epiphanies. Luckily, this is also where director Ryan Murphy (Glee, Running with Scissors) pulls some nifty moves and effectively captures the rustic essence of Rome in its delicate glory, from the quaint, cobbled sidewalks to its aromatic gastronomic delights. While certain aspects can seem a bit too Travel and Living, there’s no denying Murphy’s astute cinematographic eye. Just don’t expect anyone to collectively burst into dance or song.
After wolfing down her body weight worth of sauces and carbs, Elizabeth sashays her way to India, in an attempt to reconcile her newly found appetite with a dose of spirituality. In between scrubbing temple floors and complaining about the meditation process – she apparently can’t bear not hearing the sound of her own voice for even a minute, Elizabeth uncovers an unlikely friend in Richard (an effervescent Richard Jenkins). He’s a former alcoholic with wounds of his own to heal and sadly, is also executer of the single most honest moment of human emotion in the film. Murphy works his magic here again, balancing the gritty edges of the city with its rich cultural facets like an Indian wedding.
By the time Elizabeth reaches her final destination in Bali, the movie sags beyond ground level. You want her to find her man and whatever else it was she set out to look for already so you can end your agony once and for all. Unfortunately, you’re slapped with more Gilbert-airhead shenanigans involving her poor cycling ability and a rather sexy Brazilian divorcee, Felipe (Javier Bardem). With the advice of an intensely creepy Balinese medicine man, whose toothless grin will haunt you long after you exit the theatre, Elizabeth seeks the closure she needs and (you guessed it) realizes that Felipe is really her dream man. The film consequently throws you yet another curve ball, this time with moralistic overtures in the form of a divorced Balinese mother and her daughter. In light of her renewed perception on life, Elizabeth sends a self-righteous email to all her friends instructing them to donate money to the poor family. It’s undoubtedly a thoughtful act per se, but is so awkwardly inserted into the story that one can’t help but feel the gesture is simply about satisfying her own selflessness.
After all that brouhaha, Elizabeth turns out to be the same vapid, conceited person she was at the beginning of the film (possibly worse), and you’re not sure she deserves her happy ending. Like a stale, filling-less Bigne pastry, Eat Pray Love is fundamentally a failed recipe that consists of numerous light, fluffy layers but is hollow right down to the crust.