Eat, Pray, Love desperately seeks to tell a unique story of female empowerment. Unfortunately, it manages to get things wrong at pretty much every turn. For starters, the “unique” story is just a rehash of 2003’s Under the Tuscan Sun (plus two extra countries for more culture-clash wackiness!): a newly divorced woman impulsively decides to travel abroad to find herself. True, Eat, Pray, Love contains more food porn and eye-rolling attempts at deep spirituality, but the core of the story remains virtually identical.
The most significant problem here revolves around the two relationships Liz (Julia Roberts) has in the first act. She divorces her husband (a glorified cameo by Billy Crudup) for reasons never made entirely clear, then enters into a relationship with an actor (another glorified cameo by James Franco) that collapses for reasons never made entirely clear. These reasons absolutely need to make sense to the audience, because they don’t just serve as twin inciting incidents propelling Liz to leave New York and travel the world. The shadow cast by these two relationships shrouds everything else that happens in the film, so why does co-writer/director Ryan Murphy choose to start the story at the end of Liz’s marriage, then show the beginning and the end of her relationship with the actor, but never show the important part: why the relationships fell apart.
By the time Liz decides she’ll spend a year abroad—spending a few months each in Italy, India, and Bali—I’d already checked out of the story. It’s hard to care whether or not the main character finds herself when the movie doesn’t take the time to make her empathetic. Indeed, Liz comes across as infuriatingly selfish, only because neither her husband nor the actor seem like particularly terrible guys, and the movie never takes a second to illuminate why she felt the need to leave them. Why did she find these relationships so unfulfilling? What we’re left with is the impression that she wants to do what she wants to do when she wants to do it. That’s not an easy character to get behind, regardless of gender.
Without the audience ever really getting a grasp on why, Liz hangs out in Italy to rediscover her love of food. She moves on to India to reconnect with her lost spirituality. She finishes out the year in Bali, so she can reconnect with Ketut (a charming performance by Hadi Subiyanto), a medicine man who promised to teach her the many secrets of life. In each country, she meets a variety of colorful characters of various nationalities and genders. They’re all nice, cheerful, and compassionate, and most of them want to know why Liz doesn’t have a husband.
The story always takes the posture (without ever explicitly stating it) that Liz doesn’t need a man to get along in the world. I can’t figure out if it’s intentionally ironic or merely hypocritical that in each vignette, Liz relies on men far more than herself or even other women. While in India to learn from a well-known female guru, Liz spends more time taking the advice of a loudmouthed Texan (Richard Jenkins). The guru herself is rarely glimpsed in anything other than photographs on shrines, and she offers nothing. In Bali, Liz relies more on the pearls of wisdom doled out by Ketut than those provided by a divorced female physician (Christine Hakim).
The film suffers from a dearth of dramatic tension. The first and second acts revolve around Liz’s internal conflict without doing much to externalize it. Unfortunately, Roberts is in “cute” mode in this film, so gauging Liz’s true feelings is an impossible task, even when she occasionally looks really pensive or sad. Murphy sometimes sprinkles faux-profound voiceover narration (ostensibly lifted from the source memoir) that doesn’t illuminate as much as it should. When external conflict finally enters the film—in the form of a studly divorcée well-played by Javier Bardem—it’s much too late to redeem the watch-checking tedium of the previous 90 minutes.
I know I’m not this movie’s target audience. Maybe fans of the book or fans of Roberts will really enjoy what this movie has to offer. It just doesn’t have anything new to say about its own themes, and Roberts does a poor job of selling Liz’s alleged transformation over the course of the film. I don’t want to be too tough on her here—she has a monumental task in making Liz seem like anything more than selfish to the point of obnoxiousness. The adaptation by Murphy and Jennifer Salt lets down the character. The world’s greatest actress—which Roberts is not, even at her best—would have to struggle to make this material work and make this character likable. I haven’t read Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir, so perhaps these flaws come from the source material. Whatever the case, Eat, Pray, Love‘s relentless mediocrity makes it a movie worth missing.