Eat, Pray, Love is based on the memoirs of Elizabeth Gilbert (which I have never read), played here by Roberts, who, after divorcing her husband of eight years (a subtle Billy Crudup) and then falls into a troubled relationship with an actor (James Franco), decides to uproot her life and spend a year abroad in Italy, India, and Bali as part of a spiritual journey to discover (or rather, recover) herself. Luckily, Liz is a well-paid travel writer, and though her publicist/best friend Delia (Viola Davis) initially disapproves, she soon supports Liz's journey.
There are, of course, obvious problems with the film, starting with that very premise: why would anyone these days want to watch a movie about a disenchanted yuppie leave her cushy life to spend a very comfortable year travelling the world? It seems like almost an insult. And yet, the film overcomes this hurtle through the sheer quality of the performances. Each part contributes, so lets break the film down into its four basic sections. WARNING: the rest of this review is somewhat spoiler-y. So read at your own risk.
PROLOGUE: This is supposed to serve as exposition, to bring us up to speed about Liz's life at this point and to lay the foundations for why she would take this journey. The problem is, though, that nothing's really explained. We see Liz's marriage fall apart, but we're never informed as to why it did. There are little hints here and there, but no coherent explanation. This results in making Liz seem rather immature and petulant for wanting a divorce; with a more fleshed-out depiction of their relationship, maybe her reasons would become more apparent. The same goes for her relationship with David; one minute they're perfectly in love, and in the very next scene she wants to get away from him. Crudup gets a couple of very nice moments throughout the film, but Franco is terribly underused. Davis doesn't have much to do in her few scenes, either, but hey, look, Mike O'Malley's her husband! Not that it matters, but I thought it was nice to see him work with director Ryan Murphy outside of Glee. But on to...
Liz (Roberts) and David (Franco) wallow in their First-World problems.
EAT:...Italy, where Liz just wants to eat obnoxious amounts of food. Its here where Roberts really turns on her radiance, steering Liz away from petulant immaturity and making her into a character that we can actually relate to. Yes, the whole thing still feels selfish, but in Roberts' hands it doesn't feel nearly as selfish as it maybe is. There's not a whole lot to love here outside of Roberts' performance; Italy is probably the weakest part of her journey. Liz meets a Swedish woman, Sofi (Tuva Novotny), and her Italian tutor Giovanni (Luca Argentero), and learns the meaning of togetherness and the pleasures of doing nothing. Unfortunately, it falls into cliche, particularly its painful inclusion of the dreaded chick-flick staple, the trying-on-jeans-montage set to a poppy soundtrack (UGH!) Its also the point where Murphy's direction really starts to become annoying, as he quickly (and randomly) cuts between the action and shots of succulent Italian food. It also sets the template for the other two parts of the film: Liz visits a new land, makes friends, learns, then leaves. Its all very matter-of-fact here. So let's move on to....
PRAY:...India. This gets off on a shaky note, as Murphy tries to turn his India into a Slumdog Millionaire-esque land, with a montage of street kids and crowded streets set to an M.I.A. song. But just when it seems like more of the mediocre film we've gotten used to by now, in walks Richard Jenkins as the enigmatic Richard from Texas. Jenkins is a true marvel here, so magnetic that its impossible to take your eyes off of him every time he's on screen. Its no wonder that Liz subconsciously seeks his unsolicited advice about spirituality; he's the world-weary, seen-it-all guru she really needs. And Richard is a deeply flawed man, searching for his own redemption for the truly heartbreaking things he's done. Honestly, if this film deserves any kind of awards recognition, its a Supporting Actor nomination for Jenkins. Its not necessarily easy for someone to steal scenes from a presence like Roberts, but he succeeds valiantly. While in India, Liz also meets a young Indian girl (Rushita Singh) who has been arranged to be married, but Liz's relationship with her feels contrived as a means of learning nothing new about Liz's past marriage. So let's all go fall in...
Richard from Texas (Jenkins) sets Liz straight.
LOVE: ...in Bali! Liz does not come to Bali to fall in love, of course, but to see a medicine man, Ketut (Hadi Subiyanto), whom she had visited a year before. However, she meets Felipe (Javier Bardem) and of course that's where the love part comes in. Unfortunately, this is a return of selfish Liz; even her make-them-feel-guilty-so-they'll-donate email doesn't save her from unraveling into a woman too absorbed in her own emotions to have much real interest in those of others. Its a shame, too, since Roberts had been saving the character from that for the entire length of the film. And Bardem gives such a guarded, charming performance (similar to his Vicky Christina Barcelona role) that its a little difficult to believe that Liz would react to Felipe the way she does. You can probably guess what happens next, though. So its not an emotionally false note.
Felipe (Bardem) lays on the Brazilian charm.
Here's a really spoiler-y bit, so again, WARNING: I know from reading book reviews that, according to Gilbert's follow-up memoir, Committed, we know that Felipe and Liz end up getting married and that Liz has several affairs during their marriage. Based on what's seen here in the movie, I find that totally believable. She never seems to truly know what she wants, and she handles that indecisiveness with immaturity and self-absorption.
The film's not a complete disaster, though, given all of this. The scenery is excitingly exotic, allowing for some excellent late-summer movie escapism. And I've already mentioned the strength of the performances. So is it recommendable? If you only go to see it for Jenkins or the location, then its totally worth it. Just be prepared for a bit of a slog on the way there.
PS Another thing that bothers me: how is it that Liz only packs one suitcase, yet has a completely different (and location-centric) wardrobe for each destination? Film asks for a willing suspension of disbelief, but this is unacceptable.
PPS I understand someone wanting to take control of their lives and find themselves; that's not my issue here. What bothers me more is how truly conceited Liz can be over the course of the journey, so self-focused that she misses out on a lot of opportunities to have profound growth rather than the mostly shallow, self-help platitudes she recites as lessons learned. No wonder she's still a mess in Committed.