I haven't read Elizabeth Gilbert's bestselling non-fiction book on which this movie is based. Now, however, I have zilch desire to read the book, and wish I had given the movie a miss. I have issues with it at various levels and they are all tangled up in my head like a Gordian knot made of steel cable. So pardon me if I go all moralistic on what is otherwise a simple story of self-discovery.
The story begins with Tekut, a toothless medicine man in Bali who predicts that Liz (Julia Roberts) would lose everything in 6 months and get everything again over a journey that would end in Bali. Back in New York, Liz has an overriding impulse to end her marriage. I buy the discontent - it is very real. But does it call for a drastic severance of a marriage? I don't know.
While separated from her husband, Liz embarks on an affair with a young actor (James Franco in a role too ill-fitting for his talent). The affair ends pretty much the same way her marriage did - in deep listlessness. Liz decides to take a year off, and decides to spend it in Italy, India and Indonesia.
Liz discovers Italy through its people. She rediscovers her appetite. There is a sequence where she downs a plate of spaghetti, relishing every morsel. In Naples, she devours pizza and imparts wholesome advice to a weight-conscious expat. She learns to speak in hand gestures even as she learns the Italian language. Towards the end of her time in Italy, Liz orders lunch in fluent Italian, and her group goes about guessing the name that best describes cities and people. The weight-conscious expat wisely guesses that Liz is a woman in search of a word that best describes her. Nicely done section with a few cliches and no moral upheavals for me.
Imagine Liz, then, hurtling in an Ambassador taxi in what sounds garishly like India. She lives in an Ashram that was referred by her actor ex-boyfriend. Here, she meets a young Indian girl who is pressurised into marrying a person of her parents' choice. Liz discovers how to meditate by bestowing prayers for the young girl's wellbeing. Liz also meets Richard (Richard Jenkins) from Texas, who first upturns all her defenses, then shows her how to forgive herself for her part in a marriage gone sour. Richard's narration of his story is perhaps the most honest scene in the entire movie.
In lush Bali, Liz falls in love with Felipe (Javier Bardem) but believes she will lose the individuality and balance that she has achieved over the past year. It is Tekut who puts things in perspective for her and as American movie cliches go, Liz and Felipe power-boat off into the sunset.
It's not easy to adapt a non-fiction piece into a screenplay using story-telling devices. Under the Tuscan Sun is one of the best I have seen. Eat Pray Love as a movie concept would have sounded great on paper. But if it is true to the book, there's hardly any point in blaming the movie. My friend who has read the book, felt that the Bali sequences were much better in the movie than in the book.
As a story, it reads disturbingly like the typical American traveller's cliche-tinted journey into exoticism minus the substance abuse. It has a protagonist who is gullible - she would believe anything spouted by a medicine man who, by the way, can't save his own teeth, but speaks of smiling from the gut or bladder or whatever part of the anatomy he referred to. Not only does she believe his initial prophecy, but she also interprets/misinterprets a later one, which leads to the cloying ending. The movie has the familiar cliche-ridden India section which leads me to wonder if Italy and Bali were cliche-ridden as well! I also felt a little disturbed that Liz unwittingly programs the young Indian girl into accepting her new marriage and life, when she made the same mistake herself.
Performance-wise, Richard Jenkins' is perhaps the most honest. Felipe's relationship with his son is another beautiful section, but on the other hand, Javier infuses a certain cheesiness to Felipe's adoration of Liz. This comparison may be unfair, but I'm ploughing through - in Under the Tuscan Sun, when I see Diane Lane, I think Francesca. But in Eat Pray Love, when I see Julia Roberts, I think Julia Roberts. Liz was never there.
In one of her interviews, Roberts is rumoured to have said that she did not meet the real Liz Gilbert for fear of absently imbibing her personality and infusing it into the role. Maybe - just maybe - if she HAD met Gilbert, this may have been a moderately richer performance and not Pretty Woman all the way. I think at some level Ms. Roberts couldn't quite relate to the character she played.
If this story was set in the sixties, there would have been ways to make it a non-cliched story of a conservative married woman in search of her self in the midst of a socially rebellious generation ripe for change. There would be that heady flavour of rebellion, kindred spirits, free sex, music and yes, blessedly, some substance abuse along the way.
Eat Pray Love, to me, smacks of a self-indulgent romp through three countries by a woman bored of the well-endowed life she has created and fearful of taking responsibility for the choices she has made along the way. Is this, perhaps representative of the average (wealthy) American's discontent today? Also, is my cynicism representative of a person from a developing country who can handle a power failure better than the average (wealthy) American as represented by Liz/Roberts?