This weekend I saw Eat Pray Love directed by Ryan Murphy (he of Glee fame). Originally, I dismissed the book as some kind of Shopaholic Buys A Sari, thanks to its ultra-girly cover art and the push from Oprah. Plus, let's face it - sure, men enjoy food, but it's not considered a forbidden pleasure the way it is for women. Some men may like a good prayer when the mood strikes, though I doubt many will be doing much reading on the subject unless it's direct from the Bible. So strike that, too. And love? Well. You don't see a lot of hearts and kisses all over the poster for The Expendables, do you? If this book had been targeted toward the male demographic, it would be called Fuck Fuck Fuck.
So then. It's for women.
Thus, the screen adaptation is, too. But I'll admit it right now: I actually enjoyed this movie. No, it's no landmark piece of cinema. You can feel the little bits and pieces cobbled together from earlier movies about the wonders of travel. I was especially reminded of David Lean's Summertime in the Rome sequence. I'm not necessarily recommending Eat Pray Love as a good movie. I'm just saying I found a lot to like about it. (Like, not love.)
Make no mistake, though: this is the fast food version of spiritual enlightenment, offering up bits of Eastern philosophy like so many Chicken McNuggets. We watch Eat Pray Love and we feel like we've really been shown something, and we feel better about ourselves for having opened our minds - when, in reality, what we've seen is a Hollywood production. I could have done without several of the standard chick flick tropes, like seeing Julia and her Swedish pal trying desperately to button a pair of jeans on a shopping excursion. But I suppose the resonates for a lot of the audience. Every plot point, from the betrothed Indian girl who'd rather study psychology than marry a boring stranger to the working single mom in Bali who can't afford her own house, feels Americanized. The film feels too carefully written, with each beat hit at just the right time and everything tied in a bow by the end. It allows no room for the messiness of real life and the random discoveries that happen when you really travel to a strange land in search of some lost truth.
But at its core, Eat Pray Love is still a true story, and the honesty of Gilbert's journey comes through even if the individual moments still feel slightly manipulative. There are some keen insights (taken directly from the book, I imagine) and much of the Eastern wisdom really does ring true, and makes one pause to think. (I found her thoughts on Roman ruins particularly insightful.) I can imagine this movie being pretty excruciating carried by a lesser actress, but in a nice bit of casting, we get Julia Roberts, who totally sells it. In a role that could have come off as borderline obnoxious a la the Amy Adams character in Julie & Julia, we're actually with Roberts' Liz every step of the way. Roberts deftly manages to convey the loneliness and smallness one feels when placed in a foreign culture and gradually does evoke a sense of openness and enlightenment. She's the barbecue sauce for the movie's Chicken McNuggets of wisdom, and thanks to her they go down real easy.
Striving hard to prove he helm something a bit loftier than a high school musical number, Ryan Murphy adds some atypical directorial flourishes, some of which work well and some of which are distracting. (The New York-set opening of the film falls particularly flat, with no help from some awkward editing and unusual camera angles.) The supporting cast isn't given much room to shine, save Richard Jenkins as a Texan who nicknames Liz "Groceries." James Franco is around to look cute and complain. Javier Bardem is around to be sexy and conflicted, and very nearly succeeds in shaking off those lingering memories of Anton Chigurh (but not quite). Viola Davis gets the thankless role of being black and mildly sassy to provide the voice of reason, rolling her eyes when Julia Roberts tells her she wants to go globetrotting.
How much one enjoys this movie probably depends on how much they can relate to Elizabeth Gilbert's emotional crisis and ensuing solution - to which I personally relate quite a bit. After all, I recently put my own life into a storage locker against the advice of family and friends and moved to New York City (the very place Liz sought to escape...hmmm). And maybe if I had had a book advance to fund my adventure as Ms. Gilbert did, things would have turned out differently.
Not having the means to hit Rome, India, and Bali, I had to settle on arguably the wildest and most diverse city in my home nation. Far from feasting on the finest Italian cuisine in a variety of upscale restaurants, I frequent Subway, Chipotle, a variety of delis, as well as a number of different Starbucks. This is, of course, when I have money to buy food, which was not always the case. Eat? Not so much.
As for praying...well, I'm not a terribly religious person, but in my darkest hour I probably did utter something resembling a prayer. And a lot of good that did me. New York is not a city you come to to find God. Or Jesus, for that matter - unless you count the number of homeless folk claiming to be him. I do live in Harlem, however, right up the street from a church that cheerfully promotes "The Blood of Christ Against Obama!!" Wouldn't the forefathers be proud? It's nice to see a congregation so devoted to the separation between church and state. But beyond that, most of my prayers are taken up wishing the MTA would stop fucking with the schedule and get its goddamn act together.
And love. In Manhattan, if I'm to encounter a Javier Bardem-esque character, it's more likely he will kill me with a cattle gun than sweep me off my feet with a romantic gesture. How many eligible bachelors in New York City have I been seriously interested in? Zero. That's right - not a-one. From what I can tell, men in New York are a curiously self-involved breed and totally unsuitable for a relationship. Then again, I have also found this to be true in Los Angeles, Seattle, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Orlando, Boston, and...well, maybe I should try Bali before I allow for the possibility that it might just be me.
So even if I envy Elizabeth Gilbert her cushy book advance and marvelous journey of self-discovery, I can still find connections between hers and my own experiences in her cinematic counterpart. Was Gilbert born in New York? I don't think so. So maybe my own year-long exotic quest full of eating, loving, and other such activities still awaits me.
In the meantime, I can stop into any multiplex and feast on the condensed, two-hour version of such self-discovery and enlightenment. Where else but in America can you get such a cheap, quick, and nutrient-free morsel?
Let yourself go,