Saturday, August 14, 2010

Julia's World: EAT PRAY LOVE

Under the direction of Ryan Murphy, most recently notable for creating the TV show Glee, the popular Elizabeth Gilbert book Eat Pray Love has become a star turn for Julia Roberts who holds the screen with movie star style as she poses in exotic locations. This is a pretty travelogue with gorgeous scenery and well-dressed costars. What other leading lady in recent memory gets to be romanced by James Franco and Javier Bardem in the same picture? What other leading lady gets to indulge in lovingly prepared meals, walk through lush jungles and beautiful ruins, and look consistently endearing? This is a movie of wish fulfillment, allowing an audience to trek to Italy, India, and Indonesia with a beautiful travelling companion who lets us meet beautiful people.

It’s also a movie dripping in syrupy schmaltz, a gooey, sloppy mess that results in a movie that practically slides off the screen. This isn’t a chick flick; its a woman’s picture, but one portentous in the deep meaning it thinks it’s passing down to us. Roberts plays Elizabeth Gilbert, a writer who leaves her husband (Billy Crudup), has a fling with a struggling actor (Franco), and is all around unsettled. She tells her close friend (Viola Davis) that she feels disconnected from life, unsure of whom she really is. What she decides she needs is some time to get in touch with her appetites, her spirituality, and herself. Thus the eating, praying and loving that happens on her yearlong trek across three exotic locales.

Through her travels, Julia Roberts remains remarkably well put-together. She devours tempting plates of pasta that are sumptuously photographed. After many of those meals she mentions her need for wider pants, but when we get the shot of her struggling to button her jeans, she still looked skinny to me. She also stays remarkably clean, even when she tumbles off of a bike into a muddy ditch.

Figure and cleanliness aside, Roberts brings some small nuance to a role that, as scripted, has very little nuance inherent. She stands before breathtaking vistas, bikes through dripping, green rainforests, and meditates at an ashram in the heart of bustling India. She’s a great surrogate traveler for the audience, experiencing great beauty at every turn.

At each location, she meets people who help her along on her journey of self-discovery. The most intriguing is the sixtyish man from Texas whom she meets in India and is played by the always welcome, always excellent, Richard Jenkins. He has a moving background and a warm screen presence. Later, in Indonesia, Javier Bardem enters the picture and nearly steals the whole thing away with his effortless charm.

Yet, for all its amazing sights and charming cast, the film is frustrating in its lack of introspection. This is a story about a woman’s self-discovery, a woman coming to terms with whom she is, mentally and spiritually, finding a perfect balance and a sense of completeness. And yet, this is a film that gives us almost no sense of her interior thoughts. Sure, we get a few passages of on-the-nose narration, but we are otherwise left stranded with only occasional quivering lips, moody flashbacks, pensive eyes, and, maybe, a single tear rolling down Robert’s cheek. It’s a film that goes out of its way to convince an audience that this woman has learned Big Lessons on her journey, lessons that will change her life, change her outlook, for the better. And yet, as the credits rolled, I remained unconvinced.

Still, I found Eat Pray Love to be an agreeable experience. I liked the scenery and I liked the actors that I had to share it with. As the movie started, I found myself resisting it. I found it too maudlin, too episodic, and too full of polished imagery covering up its hollowness, it’s hodgepodge spirituality, it’s reductive view of foreign culture and it’s navel-gazing dullness. But the film outlasted my will to resist. While my early complaints still stand, by the film’s end I found myself lulled into a sense of small pleasure. It’s a shiny, big-budget, continent-spanning film with fine actors and a nice look, pleasant and undemanding. Robert Richardson’s sun-soaked cinematography is consistently lovely and the cast is enjoyable company. The film is far worse than it thinks it is, but much better than I was expecting, hardly necessary, but certainly watchable.

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