To call Eat, Pray, Love a beloved book might actually been a bit of an understatement. This real life account of Elizabeth Gilbert’s year long personal and spiritual journey through three countries has been a beacon of light and joy to fans all over the world. Inevitably the book was optioned as a movie which is now in theaters. While the movie is able to capture some of the precious moments that exist in the book it is ultimately a disservice to the author herself. In the interest of full disclosure I’ll be up front and say I have not read the book, but I went to see the film with people who have. They were able to confirm my suspicions that what made Liz a character to care about was lost in the adaptation.
Eat, Pray, Love tells the story of a year long journey embarked on by Liz Gilbert (played by Julia Roberts.) Liz is a writer who can’t seem to find balance or fulfillment in her life. She leaves her flaky yet caring husband (Billy Crudup of Watchmen) whom she has fallen out of love with. Soon after that Liz falls into a relationship with a young actor (James Franco from the Spider-man franchise) who’s performing in a play she wrote. However that relationship sours quickly and Liz finds herself in the same emotional and spiritual hole she was in before. That is when she decides to take a year long trip to find herself. Liz heads out to three locations, first to Italy (for the food and love of life,) then to India (to meet a guru she’d been following,) and finally to Bali to reconnect with a medicine man she’d met before for an article. Throughout her travels Liz meets many interesting and caring people and learns more about herself and the balance she needs in her life.
If that plot description made Liz seem self indulgent or selfish then you’ve struck on one of the big problems with the Eat, Pray, Love. It’s often difficult to understand what’s going inside Liz’s head and it makes her not only appear as a selfish person but also a bit of a vacuum as far as being the protagonist goes. When bits of voice over are used to give us insight into Liz and her thoughts it works quite well. However this being a film, where ideas should be shown rather than talked about, those moments of clarity are few and far between. The fact that the film works so much better during moments of voice-over narration shows that this really was never meant to be a movie. Due to the nature a book the reader can constantly be getting the thought process of the narrator, and that just can’t happen in a movie. Sadly though this was a story that desperately needs the insight into Liz’s thoughts in order to work.
Even though Julia Roberts does what she can with a weak lead role, there is no question that the best moments of Eat, Pray, Love come at the hands of the supporting cast. Most of the supporting characters are only there for a limited time but they bring a life to the movie that isn’t supplied by the character of Liz. There’s a spark to the friends she makes in Italy in particular that is quite enjoyable. Newcomer to the screen Hadi Subiyanto is simply perfect as the medicine man from Bali. His near toothless smile is warm and endearing and his entire presence on screen radiates warmth. The true high light of the film however is Richard Jenkins (Oscar nominated for The Visitor) as Richard from Texas. Liz encounters him during her time at the spiritual retreat in India. Like many of the supporting characters Richard verbally slaps Liz upside the head with some common sense, but he does so with less tact than most of the others and that makes him somehow all the more endearing.
Eat, Pray, Love has it’s moments but ultimately feels hollow. Liz is often either too enigmatic or seemingly self centered to work as the central figure. There’s plenty of great stuff going on around her but when the lead character fails ultimately the film as a whole fails. Also having her year long journey of self discovery end in a rather generic romantic entanglement with Javier Bardem (best known for his Oscar winning role in No Country for Old Men) feels somewhat cheap. It’s meant to be the culmination of her ability to finally love herself and therefore properly love somebody else but it feels too cliched to work on that level. Everybody is trying but ultimately this was not a story that could ever properly work on screen. The moments when we get a glimpse inside Liz’s head show her to be insightful, intellectual and wonderfully funny. But aside from a few scant bits of narration one would be hard pressed to realize that from this movie. Skip the film and pick up the book instead.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5