(by Dustin Putman
Until it falls into convention in the third act, "Eat Pray Love" is striking in that it is a major Hollywood production with a female lead that is about more than what man she will end up with. In fact, that question isn't on the radar for a long time, and probably shouldn't have reared its ugly head in the wrap-up. Based on the best-selling memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert, this sparklingly good-looking feature adaptation is leisurely paced, but undercut by an urgency beating within the heart of its heroine, a writer pushing forty who feels lost in life and desperately wants to be found. Her name is Liz Gilbert (Julia Roberts), and she hasn't been without a significant other since the age of fifteen. Walking around the home she has made for herself and husband Stephen (Billy Crudup), she gazes at the photos on the walls and doesn't recognize herself in them. Following their split, Liz catches herself quickly falling back on old habits and into the arms of yet another guy, 28-year-old actor David (James Franco). Realizing that she's lost her zest for life—a discovery that scares the hell out of her—Liz makes a life-altering decision to drop everything and travel for an entire year, immersing herself in the people, cultures, and food of Italy, India and Bali. Article continues below
Written and directed by Ryan Murphy (2006's "Running with Scissors"), creator of the current hit television series "Glee," "Eat Pray Love" is certain to be an end-of-summer blockbuster, the type that women will flock to and love. The movie doesn't talk down to them, but seemingly with them. It would be wrong to call it a "chick flick"—that label, no matter the film, has always seemed sexist anyway—for the soul-searching, existential conflicts Liz faces are ones that everyone goes through at some point in their life. There is no gender divide here; men should be able to understand and relate to Liz's journey just as well as women. After all, who hasn't asked themselves what they're here for, what they want out of life, and why they're not as happy as they know they should be? Not all of us globe-trot for a year to find the answers—money never seems to be an issue with Liz, so she must be well off—but we all must reconcile our internal struggles in our own way, and with the means that we have.
First it's off to Italy, where Liz rents an apartment in a rustic villa. Dead center in one of the most romantic places on earth, she delights in her newly single nature, hovering over the word sola ("alone" in English) in an Italian dictionary and savoring its meaning. Learning the language while eating what she wants, Liz befriends fellow traveler Sofi (Tuva Novotny) and hunky local tutor Giuseppe (Luca Argentero), if only for a short time making a new family and home within her luscious surroundings. The excesses of Italy are whittled down to the necessities in India, where Liz settles into an ashram and tries to find a spiritual center that is right for her. Making a personal impact on her are two people she meets, 17-year-old Tulsi (Rushita Singh), dreading the arranged marriage she is about to face, and Richard (Richard Jenkins), hailing from Texas and a sad past he's not too proud of. Finally, Liz returns to Bali, a place she visited a year earlier, reconnecting with a wise elderly healer named Ketut (Hadi Subiyanto) who left an impression on her (and some seemingly accurate predictions for her future).
Co-written by Jennifer Salt, "Eat Pray Love" is longish at 133 minutes, but economical in its time. Director Ryan Murphy exhibits a smooth, confident, understanding hold of the material, developing even the supporting characters Liz leaves at home or meets during her travels with a clear-eyed sense of depth and vision. No one in the ensemble feels shortchanged, and they are all anchored by Julia Roberts (2010's "Valentine's Day") in what is surely her most affecting, dynamic performance since her Oscar-winning role in 2000's "Eric Brockovich." Roberts embodies the sympathetic life force of Liz Gilbert, bringing a character to the screen that never feels anything less than real and three-dimensional. No saint herself, she makes mistakes—the way she tells husband Stephen she wants a divorce is sudden and harsh—but also recognizes the error of her ways. Following a rocky divorce proceeding, Liz catches the distraught look on Stephen's face just before the elevator door shuts, and she suddenly understands the pain she's caused and the love he genuinely had for her. By this point, there's little she can do to make amends. Later, a recollection of her wedding day that eventually segues into her present-day attempt to forgive herself for the trouble she made in her marriage, scored to Neil Young's haunting "Harvest Moon," is greatly touching.
As Stephen, Billy Crudup (2009's "Watchmen") surpasses the cliche of the jilted man, stirring one's emotions in his betrayed, hurt reading of a well-meaning guy who didn't see his marriage going wrong until it was too late. James Franco (2010's "Date Night") is just as well-realized as Liz's next boyfriend David, who tells her she doesn't have to leave right before she sets off on her trip, but who, as Liz notes, never actually asks her to stay, either. Brief, effective flashbacks to moments Liz spent with both Stephen and David help to keep them in the viewer's mind while symbolizing the respective meaning they had for Liz. As Richard, top-notch character actor Richard Jenkins (2010's "Dear John") delivers another stirring, unforgettable turn to add under his belt. The piercing intuitions Jenkins exhibits as a performer—the very subtle act of picking his teeth, for example, during his confession to Liz about what has brought him to India—are nothing short of brilliant, an opened door to his heart and psyche.
In Bali, Liz begins to once again open her mind to the possibility of love, particularly after meeting Felipe (Javier Bardem), a Brazilian working in Indonesia. They both share the experience of divorce, and Liz is further endeared after Felipe gets choked up bidding farewell to his 19-year-old son Leon (Tj Power), but otherwise director Ryan Murphy never quite captures what it is Liz sees in him. Felipe isn't always tactful—when he is ready to have sex with Liz, he approaches her and states, "It is time"—and comes off more as just another hot fling she would be better off discarding by the end of her trip. Instead, the film disappointingly chooses this unconvincing romance to be the climactic focal point, even lowering itself to having Liz run around the island trying to catch Felipe before she is to fly back to the U.S. By this time, Liz has earned the right to more than some man and should have been given more credit. There were plenty of ways for the film to signify Liz welcoming love back into her life without the trite conclusion that has been conceived here, and it is the one drawback to an otherwise pretty fantastic picture.
Of course, with or without the culminating romance, "Eat Pray Love" is really about one woman's path back to herself. Internal crises are underrated in Hollywood, perhaps not seen as cinematic enough and definitely lacking the chance for explosions and big action set-pieces. What big studios do not understand, however, is that few things are as fascinating as the human condition in all its yearnings and vulnerabilities. "Eat Pray Love" is beautifully crafted for the majority of its running length, the narrative never losing sight of Liz's point-of-view, the cinematography by Robert Richardson (2009's "Inglourious Basterds") as attractive and impeccable as photos in a travel guide. Likewise, the soundtrack is indelibly chosen (no surprise coming from the director responsible for "Glee") and the music score by Dario Marianelli (2009's "Everybody's Fine") never overwhelms the drama, but unobtrusively compliments it. Despite what some people may be expecting, "Eat Pray Love" is neither sappy nor maudlin, and its manipulations are confident yet sneaky enough that the viewer rarely notices. An absorbing character study as well as a vacation on film, the movie is much like one's own hard-earned getaway: you may not necessarily be well-rested when it's over, but you ultimately feel like you got something vital out of it. First and foremost, you're glad you went.