Movie review: ‘Eat Pray Love’
If there is one constant in “Eat Pray Love,” the imperfect yet beautifully rendered adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir on a year of heartbreak and healing starring Julia Roberts — it is this: There will be tears.
Happy tears, sad tears, tears of relief, tears of regret, gut-wrenching sobs, really almost any variation imaginable — and that’s just the guy in the next row who didn’t think he’d need Kleenex in a movie, ever. So no need to blush if you find yourself getting teary, nearly everyone in the movie — Roberts, Javier Bardem, Billy Crudup, Viola Davis, Richard Jenkins — cries before it’s over too.
If anything, it was the crying – and the catharsis that comes with it — that made such passionate fans of the book in the first place, myself included. Despite (or because of…) all the education, the career success, the years of therapy, the rich circle of friends and family, Gilbert found herself still getting it completely wrong when it came to relationships with the men in her life. A thoroughly modern, high-class problem that turned out to resonate deeply and widely. The movie hews so closely to all those emotional colors, with Roberts breaking apart so completely and luminously as Liz, that it is likely to touch that same chord.
Just as the book turned out to be a perfect vehicle for Gilbert to work through all manner of emotional highs and lows, the movie creates space and a place for Roberts to give into wave after wave of feelings as she moves through resentment, guilt, regret, forgiveness, joy and hope to change her life.
In Ryan Murphy she seems to have the perfect director. He’s made a career of broken people, bad relationships and fractured self-esteem quite brilliantly, most notably on TV with “Nip/Tuck” and “Glee.” And yes, I know film and TV are very different mediums, but that’s not the problem here. Murphy wrings all of his actors emotionally dry, scraping to the bone to expose vulnerability, but he hasn’t quite figured out how to control that power. So this gorgeous but messy affair isn’t always as satisfying as it should be.
The film basically begins where the book does with Liz Gilbert at 30, a successful writer with a handsome underachieving husband in Stephen (Crudup), a house in a posh New York suburb, on her knees in the middle of the night sobbing a prayer to God to fix what is broken.
The answer is a divorce, which quickly turns catastrophic. Even a dreamy rebound lover named David played by James Franco can’t break her depression. So Liz sets out on a yearlong search for balance and New Age-y enlightenment: the sumptuous feast of Italy where food is the cure, the meditative Indian ashram with Richard from Texas (Jenkins) as her spiritual advisor, and the final months in Bali with the ministrations of local medicine man Ketut (Hadi Subiyanto) and a new romance with Felipe (Bardem).
Meanwhile, the canvas for all these mood swings has such a saturated beauty that it can bring you to tears too. Cinematographer Robert Richardson’s (Oscar winner for “The Aviator” and “JFK”) shots of pasta and pizza, and the Italian cafes and countryside kitchens where Liz partakes, will leave you desperate for a taste; the light filtering through the ashram bathes those scenes with an ethereal glow; the lush tropics of Bali through his lens turns up the heat, though honestly with Bardem around, you don’t need it.
But it’s not all perfection. “Eat Pray Love” was never going to be an easy adaptation given how interior a story Gilbert crafted. The book’s self-help, self-absorbed qualities, which made a publishing hit, threaten sentimental mush on the big screen, and there are times when the film comes close. A few characters have been streamlined, others have been dropped, but Murphy and screenwriting partner Jennifer Salt, stay true to the spirit and construction of the source, and that is part of what takes the film off track.
Liz’s inner voice, which drives the book, turns into extensive voice-over, which Roberts handles well enough. But the conceit of narration cheats the character development time, which would have made for a richer film. You feel this most acutely in Italy, the first leg of the journey. The film never finds its footing there — there’s virtually no connection between Liz and the cast of characters that flow into her life, and almost no story. India, however, is made worthwhile by Jenkins, an actor of extraordinary range who makes the folksy recovering Richard someone you’d want to spend time reflecting with. Bali is saved by Subiyanto, who is delightful as the smiling and nearly toothless ancient healer, and Bardem, whose potent screen presence makes anything look absolutely right for the moment.
Any time Murphy pulls away from the book, the film gets better. The scenes between Liz and her ex, Crudup’s Stephen, are intriguing and always welcome. In their flirts and their fights there is some of the crackling bite that Murphy can give dialogue when he’s at his best, and it hints at what might have been.
It helps that Roberts rides all the turbulent waves with such ease and such grace, that Jenkins knows exactly what to do with his internal churn, and that Bardem can do no wrong. It makes the many tears worth it — or at least it will for those in the mood for a good cry, and all those fans of the book who already knew to bring tissues.