Eat, Pray, Love, the movie based on Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling memoir, is a wholly selfish movie—and that’s meant in the most objective way possible. The main character, Liz (Julia Roberts), finds herself dissatisfied with her life, and undertakes a yearlong trip to Italy, India, and Bali to find herself. That is the quest. There is no lip service to fulfilling an artistic ambition, or to bettering the world. It’s a solo mission entirely devoted to the self.
It’s also an objective normally reserved, especially in movies, for 20-somethings. (Isn’t “traveling to India to find oneself” the ultimate post-graduate cliché?) Liz, leaving a childless marriage in the beginning of the film, is beholden to no one. She is only responsible for herself, much like a privileged 20-something. The question is: Is there an age at which this emerging-into-a-whole-person storyline becomes vulgar? Or, considering the amount of scorn the younger generation brings down upon itself for being so similarly vain—broadcasting every interior thought on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and the like—is there an age where this kind of selfishness isn’t vulgar?
It’s not that the character, Liz, doesn’t understand how self-centered she’s being. When a friend, a new parent, shows Liz a trove of baby treasures and toys she’d been saving for years, Liz, uninterested in anything parented-related, picks up an item of clothing and says, “Does this come in my size?” (Not even, “I’m so happy for you.”) It’s meant to be a tossed-off joke, but quickly it becomes meaningful that Liz isn’t saving up a treasure trove of baby items—she only has herself. “I used to have an appetite for my life and it’s just gone,” she says in the film’s most trailer-worthy moment. So, she heads off in search of getting that self-satisfaction back—how to live for herself (eat), forgive herself (pray), and believe that she deserves better (love)—and she’d agree with how self-absorbed the endeavor is.
On one hand, this is admirable. Finally, there is a female-centered movie that doesn’t promise that marriage is the only sure-fire ticket to a life of happiness. Liz’s story begins after other, more typical romantic comedies end. She has a nice groom (played by a dapper-looking Billy Crudup); she lives in posh digs. It’s refreshing to see a movie acknowledge that a woman may need more than that.
Instead, though, with Eat Pray Love you get a romantic comedy with only one person. Solo spiritual journeys are far easier to describe in print than they are in film. Director Ryan Murphy has nothing really to work with except for close-up after close-up of Julia Roberts. For most of the movie, Liz’s progress is so interior that she has no one to really play off of for anything else. (There isn’t even a commentary track on the DVD—a brief interview with Murphy is the only extra feature apart from the director’s cut of the film—because there doesn’t seem to be much for him to say.) In some of these shots, Roberts looks wistful. In others, she looks moved. Sometimes she flashes that million-dollar grin. Murphy cuts to her; he swirls the camera around her. These glances, along with many voiceovers, stand in for the bulk of the soul-searching.
That’s not to say that the film is a one-man-show. In each of her exotic, gorgeous-looking locales, there are others who aid Liz in her self-actualization. Mostly, these are the thinnest of characters—a group of interchangeable “friends” in Italy, a smiling but inscrutable medicine man in Bali—who seem to be around mostly to keep Liz from talking to herself. In India, though, she meets a Texan named Richard (Richard Jenkins), who actually forms an interesting, complex relationship with Liz (though he has an annoying habit of overusing the cutesy nickname he invents for her). He simultaneously acts as both antagonist and cheerleader, pushing Liz towards spiritual enlightenment. Later in the film, he reveals a backstory that—combined with Jenkins’ restrained performance—almost makes it seem as if he would’ve been a better film subject.
Alas, in the end, Eat Pray Love even fails at being a romantic comedy of one. As the film progresses, more and more of Liz’s focus returns to the men in her life. She feels guilty for leaving her husband. She feels rejected and disappointed that her first post-marriage fling didn’t work out. When, in Bali, she meets a Brazilian businessman—Felipe, played by Javier Bardem—who manages to distract her from herself for a time, she spends most of her time fretting over how seriously to take the relationship.
In the end, all of this emphasis on other men undermines the original undertaking of the film. What begins as a hero’s quest to find herself turns into the world’s most meandering, overlong rom-com, with the meet-cute not happening until more than two-thirds into the film. (He almost hits her with his car! How adorable.) If that’s the destination the film was aiming for the entire time, then all of the soul-searching and the hand-wringing that comes before it just seems, well, selfish.