Eat. Pray. Love. Barf. Ryan Murphy’s swooning, gushing, sappy adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling memoir about coming back from divorce through travel, food and new love will probably prove pretty indigestible to a substantial segment of the audience—specifically the male half, to which your humble reviewer belongs. Some women, on the other hand, will find the parable of female empowerment as fulfilling on the screen as they did on the page. “Eat Pray Love” could be the ultimate chick flick. Whether that’s a compliment or a put-down is for you to decide, and your judgment will probably depend on your gender.
In yet another adaptation burdened by a crushing load of narration, Gilbert’s experiences have been transformed into stereotypical dramedy terms. It all begins when the New York writer, fresh from a visit to Bali where a jovial seer (Hadi Subiyanto) prophesies she’ll return for a longer stay, decides one night to end her marriage to Stephen—portrayed one-sidedly as a pretty vacuous fellow—despite the fact that he’s played here by Billy Crudup, an extraordinarily handsome guy. During the bitter divorce proceedings, she’s depressed, and even a fling with a gorgeous young actor (James Franco, doing little but posing) can’t bring her out of her funk.
She Liz decides that what she needs is a journey of self-discovery. She plans an itinerary that will take her to Italy, India and Indonesia in three four-month installments. (Murphy doesn’t bother to inform us that she financed the trip via the advance on her book deal—an option that won’t be available to those who might want to follow in her footsteps.) The picture follows her, swathing her every step in gauzy, glossy visuals (courtesy of cinematographer Robert Richardson) that might have been shot in situ but exude a saccharine phoniness. And at each stage she learns things, because everywhere she just happens to meet people who are like human fortune cookies.
In Rome, for instance, she learns the glory of Italian cuisine, which presumably she’d never encountered in New York, and is told by colorful locals that she needs to just to have pleasure. In India she spends time at a Hindu ashram, where she both meditates and gleans pearls of wisdom from a sitcom-style figure called Richard from Texas (Richard Jenkins, below his usual standard here, especially in his inevitable, spuriously poignant self-revealing monologue scene). But it’s in Bali where she meets the most important figure in her travels, handsome, genial Felipe (Javier Bardem, as sweet as hex wasn’t in “No Country for Old Men”), a divorced guy from Brazil. Needless to say, they hit it off. But will she allow herself to take the emotional plunge again?
This story actually happened, of course, but the way Murphy presents it, barely a moment of “Eat Pray Love” rings true. Part of the problem is in the casting of Roberts, one of those stars who seem incapable of being anyone but themselves and—even worse—of doing anything but rom-com shtick and melodramatic excess. However much Gilbert’s journey might have been navel-gazing for a buck, she apparently experienced some revelatory moments in the course of it. But no such serious introspection is evident in Roberts’ performance, which is nothing more than a catalogue of her familiar shtick.
As for the men in her life, despite the quality of the actors involved they all come across as one-note types who have no existence beyond her shadow. It’s as much a pity to see the guys’ talents frittered away as it is to watch actresses being wasted in male-targeted action flicks. But this movie also sabotages the talents of Viola Davis as Liz’s sassy best friend. Of course Davis was also wasted in “Knight and Day,” so she should be getting used to it by now.
“Eat Pray Love” looks sumptuous, just like “Sex and the City 2” did. Richardson’s camera luxuriates in the locations, and the score mingles lush original music by Dario Marianelli with pop tunes, local rhythms and operatic excerpts (though why we hear the Queen of the Night’s aria from “Die Zauberflote” when Liz gorges herself on spaghetti is beyond me). As a travelogue it’s not without merit.
Unfortunately, as a movie it’s pretty bad, a celebration of self-indulgence trying to pass itself off as profound soul-searching.