Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love.

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Aug. 12 2010 10:41 PM

Eat Pray Watch

Julia Roberts on a year-long journey of self-discovery.

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Julia Roberts as Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love. Click image to expand.
Julia Roberts as Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat Pray Love

"Tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth," chants the epigraph to Elizabeth Gilbert's monster best-seller Eat Pray Love. In the memoir that follows, Gilbert does tell the factual truth—the story of how, after a painful divorce and a period of deep depression, she spent a year traveling alone to Italy, India, and Indonesia on a book-contract-fueled voyage of self-discovery. But there's something about that chatty, rambling, maddeningly readable book that remains irreducibly phony. Gilbert is a skilled deployer of her own considerable charm; she knows just when to make herself vulnerable by revealing a personal failing, when to crack an earthy joke, when to flash the literary equivalent of a flirtatious smile. But that very skill can make Gilbert's prose feel calculated and synthetic. In short, Elizabeth Gilbert is the Julia Roberts of writers, which means that the film adaptation by Ryan Murphy (the creator of Nip/Tuck and Glee) got at least one thing right.

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Few actresses can telegraph pleasure as well as Roberts, which is why the "eat" portion of the film, in which her character packs away so much Roman pasta that her jean size soars from 0 to 1, is the most enjoyable of the three. But for those who haven't read the book, it won't be easy to grasp how and why Liz gets to Rome in the first place. A rushed and cursory setup has her breaking up with her husband (Billy Crudup) and embarking on a doomed affair with a young actor (James Franco) with little apparent motivation; both men, and in fact every male character in the movie, seem handsome, charming, and besotted with her. We know Liz has hit rock bottom because she tells her publisher, Delia (Viola Davis), "I've hit rock bottom," not because we've accompanied her on the way down.

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Prozac would be considerably less overprescribed if more writers had publishers like Delia, who lets herself be convinced that a book advance large enough to finance a year of world travel will be just the thing for what ails Liz. (It's a flaw of both the book and the film that the negotiation of this contract is glossed over so hastily. There's no shame in having landed a sweet book deal, and having the financial underpinnings of Gilbert's trip made plain would help to mitigate the audience's resentment at her barely acknowledged privilege.) Once in Italy, Liz takes language classes, wanders around in cute outfits gandering at fountains, and orders marvelous meals with an assortment of international friends, while Martha Stewart's food stylist hovers just off-screen with a spray bottle of liquid glycerin. This part of the movie is my favorite because it's an unabashed glossy travelogue; as viewers, we're not asked to do anything more than acknowledge the irrefutable fact that il dolce far niente looks like a lot of fun.

The "pray" section, in which Liz seeks spiritual solace in an Indian ashram, is a tougher sell. Watching a person meditate makes for less than dynamic cinema, and the ooglety-booglety inner journeys that Gilbert describes in the book are hard to bring to life on the page, let alone on-screen. The dramatic interest of the India chapter comes from Richard (Richard Jenkins), a fellow spiritual seeker and recovering alcoholic from Texas who befriends Liz with mystifying alacrity—minutes into their first conversation, he's already bestowed on her an affectionate nickname. Jenkins, a fine character actor, invests Richard with an easygoing gravitas, but I never got around the essential phoniness of the Liz/Richard relationship. His character seems to exist for the sole purpose of dispensing folksy epigrams about acceptance and faith. The one scene in which Richard does get a chance to tell his own story is a nakedly manipulative play on the viewer's emotions. This scene is meant to show that Liz and Richard have reached a new level of trust with one another, but it marked the moment when I stopped trusting the movie.

Once Liz has checked spiritual seeking off her travel to-do list, she heads to Bali, where an old medicine man (Hadi Subiyanto) takes her on as a student and amanuensis. Amid the island's lush jungles and libidinous expat parties, she meets a crinkly-eyed Brazilian businessman, Felipe (Javier Bardem), whose bossa-nova mix tapes might as well be titled "Have Sex With Me Right Now." But Liz, still damaged by the wreckage of her past two relationships, takes a while to respond to Felipe's advances.

When she does, this bland, cautious film ventures for a moment into uncharacteristically daring territory. There's a suggestion that, as tempting as Felipe may be, Liz might be better served by opting out of yet another all-consuming love affair. She's afraid of losing her hard-won sense of balance, she tells her new suitor, and the panic in her eyes as she resists his somewhat smothering advances felt to me like the movie's lone moment of emotional truth. But like the rest of the revelations in Eat Pray Love(Columbia), this one comes at almost no cost. In Gilbert-land, it's possible to have your prayer and eat it, too.

Watch a scene from Eat Pray Love:

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