Movie Review: Eat Pray Love
By Matthew Huntley
August 24, 2010

I'm going to have to break up with you because of your outfit.

If you think Eat Pray Love is just another one of those movies where a self-indulgent American runs off to a foreign, exotic land to rediscover herself, you’re not far off. Indeed it does shares many qualities with “one of those movies.” But it is still a good example of its type, mostly because the screenplay is fair and doesn’t supply the heroine with easy or idealistic answers, at least not until the very end. For most of the movie, it stays its ground and maintains the notion that there are, in fact, no easy answers to the crises life sometimes gives us, no matter how many friends we have, how much food we eat, how much we pray or how much we give. Even though the ads make it seem like one, a fairy tale it is not, and it’s that quality that makes it credible.

Julia Roberts stars as Liz Gilbert, a travel writer facing a mid-life crisis: she no longer wants to be married to her husband (Billy Crudup). There’s no specific reason; she just doesn’t feel right about it any more (being unable to name the reason is usually worse). One night after a party, she gets up and prays to God for the first time, desperate, fearful and full of sadness and anxiety (credit to Roberts for conveying these feelings so genuinely). After filing for divorce, she stays with her best friend (Viola Davis) for support and begins dating a younger man, an actor named David (James Franco), but it’s clear their relationship is ill-fated.

Pretty soon, Liz starts to think her whole life is ill-fated. She doesn’t “feel” for it any more and lacks the passion and ambition she once had. Though the woman is hardly suffering, what with her comfortable finances, stable career, and cushy lifestyle, one of the movie’s points is that anyone can feel low and lifeless despite their superficial wealth. The bottom line is the world doesn’t make sense to Liz any more and she wants to re-attain her spirit. Without it, she might not care to survive any more, even though she’s perfectly capable. She wants the desire back.

Her plan: spend a year abroad in Italy, India and Bali. As viewers, we immediately think, if Liz can afford to take a year off and explore these countries, how dare the movie ask us to sympathize with her. But it achieves this because director Ryan Murphy is careful not to make the locations look too enticing. He doesn’t want viewers to get the impression the countries’ beauty is the quick answer to Liz’s suffering. Rather, he presents them raw and less romantic. We see the towns and cities functioning naturally and unaffected. They are picturesque, sure, but they’re also authentic. I admired the way the movie continually refrained from believing Liz’s problems were solvable over night. Given her situation, she will feel bad and guilty for a while. The movie knows restoring personal balance takes time.

Of course, there are a few key people who help Liz along the way, and they dish out obvious, albeit useful, life lessons we could have foreseen a mile away. Fortunately, the actors who speak this conventional wisdom give strong performances and we listen to what they have to say, however trite the dialogue may sound. One is an old Balinese medicine man named Ketut (Hadi Subiyato), whom we meet at the beginning and who prophesizes Liz’s crisis.

She also meets a Texas man named Richard (Richard Jenkins) at an Ashram in India. Like Liz, he’s there to regain peace and forgive himself for past sins and failures. In the movie’s best and most heartfelt scene, he speaks an uncompromised truth, which is delivered all in one take. It’s the film’s most powerful moment and it’s no surprise it belongs to Jenkins.

Another strong performance comes from Javier Bardem as Felipe, Liz’s meet-cute lover in Bali. Bardem may be one of the few actors who can kiss a man on the lips, call him darling and still maintain an assured virility. Here, he more or less plays a spin on his casual charmer character from Vicky Cristina Barcelona, only this time he’s more settled. Despite the direction we know the movie will take once Bardem enters the picture, we still enjoy his presence.

As we expect, the supporting characters allow Liz to learn that nothing in life is certain, no matter how much we plan (or don’t plan) for it. Yes, this is an obvious lesson, and it’s probably spelled out even more blatantly in the real Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling book of the same name, but what’s curious about the movie is that it abstains from providing quick resolutions and artificial happiness, even though it has the opportunities. I was surprised how long Liz continued to experience heartache and uncertainty. Given the movie was produced by a major Hollywood studio, I figured it would jump to the happy endings and profound life lessons faster, but its patience gives us time to identify with Liz and look beyond the fact she’s traveling in beautiful parts of the world. It reminds us that one can be physically standing in paradise but that such a world is irrelevant when one is unsure of who they are or where they’re going.

Eat Pray Love is a not a great movie, but it is entertaining and sort of truthful. It accomplishes its goal of getting us to care about Liz and see her not as a spoiled, narcissistic drama queen but as a scarred woman who needs to trust herself again. Liz is sad and I was sad for her, but not in a pitying sort of way, but in the sense I understood her dilemma. Liz is unhappy, but she’s not sure why and she needs to find out so she can help herself. Roberts, still likable as ever, plays Liz in such a way that we want this to happen. We see beyond the locations and decadence and focus on her as a person. I would have liked the movie even more had it the courage not to resort to such an auto-pilot ending, but everything before that examines this woman’s problem up close. And, like Liz, we see her crisis as something that needs to be solved before she can go on living.