Film Review: Eat Pray Love

Despite splendid scenery and an appealing Julia Roberts, the film of Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-seller about her year-long spiritual quest fails to capture the humor and uplift of the book.

Eat Pray Love, the movie, will undoubtedly ratchet up the wish-fulfillment fantasies of the millions—literally, millions—of women who bought and read Elizabeth Gilbert’s uplifting memoir about searching for and eventually finding her true self in Italy (where she ate), India (where she prayed) and Indonesia (where she fell in love). But can this long-awaited (and very long) film penetrate our psyches and send our hearts soaring as effectively as the simple act of reading Ms. Gilbert’s effortless but inspiring prose? Well, yes. And no.

In the yes column, Gilbert is played by Julia Roberts, one of the most charming and empathetic actresses ever to step in front of a camera. In Eat Pray Love, she has apparently abandoned the joyful spontaneity of her youthful performances, but replaced it with something more mature and cinematically powerful: Roberts now comes across as a truly womanly woman. As such, she beautifully portrays Gilbert’s various memoir-inspiring incarnations on the path to self-realization. In chronological order, they are: the angry, dead-inside New York divorcée (with Billy Crudup as her vengeful husband), who eagerly rebounds into the arms of David, a sexy young actor (James Franco); the joyful free spirit who goes to Italy to discover guiltless pleasure by indulging (and how!) in pasta, pizza, wine, gelato, etc.; the humbled yet frustrated penitent who’s made to scrub floors at an ashram in India; and, at last, Roberts is the Liz who finds balance in Bali, where she reluctantly but irrevocably falls in love with a grizzled but gorgeous Brazilian played by Javier Bardem.

Eat Pray Love was filmed in the locations mentioned above—in all their lush travelogue glory—which is a singular plus for the movie. And here’s another one: The varied and vivid characters Gilbert encountered and wrote about during her year-long spiritual quest are wonderfully brought to life by some very fine and charismatic international actors. Chief among them is the American Richard Jenkins, who almost steals the movie (or at least the bit he’s in) as Richard the Texan, a fellow seeker at the Indian ashram, whose funny but pungent philosophical musings are couched in what Liz calls bumper-sticker slogans. (Example: You can’t get to the palace without swimming through the moat.) But it is Richard who provides the film’s emotional high point—in a monologue that lays bare the life-changing sorrows that led him to set out on his own spiritual path. Richard’s story inspires Liz to shed her own life-changing sorrows to begin a new life—and find a new love.

There's a problem here, though. Eat Pray Love does not rate as a really good movie. Despite the uplifting source material and the lively presence of Roberts and Jenkins and Bardem, et al., what appears onscreen is neither very uplifting nor lively. In fact, at times the words “sluggish,” "boring" and “lifeless” come to mind.

Granted, many difficult changes were necessary in order to adapt Gilbert’s best-selling memoir to the screen, and in most instances writer-director Ryan Murphy and his co-writer Jennifer Salt chose judiciously. For example, they created real characters for Gilbert’s husband and New York boyfriend (who were but shadowy memories in the book), and they wisely selected the most meaningful interior monologues for Roberts to deliver in voiceover. Unfortunately, the filmmakers totally ignore the book’s light humor—the ironic fusion of Gilbert’s refreshing self-effacement and her sometimes annoying self-aggrandizing.

Eat Pray Love will certainly entertain and perhaps enlighten its target audience—the female filmgoers who harbor secret yearnings and the men who love them in spite of that. And with all the beautiful people, lush locations and funky ashram fashions to look at, it is certainly a visual treat. But when it comes to fulfilling a girl’s soul-soaring fantasies? Sorry, but in this case, the movie cannot match the simple soar-power of Gilbert’s written words.