[13 August 2010]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“You will lose all your money.” On hearing this prediction, Liz (Julia Roberts) is understandably anxious. A magazine writer from New York, she’s in Bali to interview a healer, Ketut (Hadi Subiyanto), and here he is reading her palm. When he adds that she’ll return to Bali and he’ll teach her “everything I know,” she looks simultaneously put out and thrilled, certainly confused. Ketut concludes, “You need to look through your heart.” So now you know, long before Liz catches on: she will be transformed by her encounter with this magical person of color.
It gets worse. Eat Pray Love presents Liz’s road to enlightenment so it looks too reverent, too episodic, and too self-absorbed. Based on Elizabeth Gilbert ‘s best-seller, the movie puts Liz through the stages of the title (she eats in Italy, prays in India, and finds love in Bali), commemorating each with gorgeous shots of plates of pasta or ancient ruins. Traveling the world, Liz finds wisdom in assorted traditions and others (Italians, Scandinavians, Indians, Brazilians, even a Texan). She’s searching for her “truth,” she says, her self-understanding and her self-appreciation. But when she finds it, you’re only glad that your own ordeal is over.
The quest begins (again) when Liz is back in the city with her vacuous, apparently ambitionless husband Stephen (Billy Crudup). Looking at him anew, following her experience with Ketut, Liz is increasingly disappointed. When he announces that eh wants to go back to school and, on top of that, Liz sees her best friend Delia (Viola Davis) happy with both her new baby and her man, well, she makes a “decision.” She prays (“like, to God”), on her knees in her lovely living room in the middle of the night, desperate for a sign about what she must do. The film makes literal her sense of immobility when she hears her own voice advising her to go back to bed. Here, she makes-and-says her next decision, to divorce her husband.
And so she’s off, in pursuit of something new, first embodied by the relatively young actor David (James Franco, who earns points for saying he’s read just 20 pages of Gilbert’s novel). Lusting after him while he recites her dialogue on a stage (dialogue with which he “takes liberties,” and which sounds dreadful in every way, his and hers), Liz looks a little adorable, as if she’s found some energy at least, if not “truth.” But this effect wears thin in the few minutes, when the couple lapses into a trite montage of a romance: they eat, they laugh, they walk in the park. When she again comes to a crisis point (you never know exactly why she’s so unable to locate her “self,” or what that “self” may be, but boy, she cries about it a lot), poor David goes along, thinking she’ll be back after she takes a year off.
Her journey to Italy and beyond has Liz learning new languages and modes of meditation and recipes. Her new acquaintances tend to pop up briefly, delivering bons mots and then sliding off screen. In Roma, Sofi (Tuva Novotny) helps her order Napoleons, Giovanni (Luca Argentero) teaches her Italian and “the sweetness of doing nothing.” In India, somewhere near Delhi, fellow ashram guest Richard-from-Texas (Richard Jenkins) reveals his own tragedy (“it’s not a pretty story, but it’s pretty classic”) and 15-year-old Tulsi (Rushita Singh) laments her arranged marriage—both providing still more examples of just how easy Liz has everything. No matter: Liz remains intently focused on the big picture, which is determinedly about her and that self she’s so fond of.
When at last she finds her way back to Ketut, he has actually forgotten her. She tries a few ways to remind him of who she is, why it’s so important for her to be here and for him to appreciate the majesty of her self-indulgence. Ketut (along with another warmhearted healer, played by Christine Hakim) smiles and nods through a few more scenes, never quite disabusing Liz of the notion that the universe revolves around her. The movie gives her no reason to think otherwise, delivering on cue Felipe (Javier Bardem) a very nice Brazilian who inexplicably thinks Liz is as wonderful as she does.
“Leez, listen to Ketut,” Ketut says. “Sometimes, losing balance for love is part of balance in life.” Except in Eat Pray Love, where Liz loses no balance, for love or anything else. Throughout, she is a remarkably still center.