I suspect that Ryan Murphy has made the best possible movie out of Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat Pray Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia. Julia Roberts and voluptuous production value contribute mightily to this ultimate of wish-fulfillment tales.
Eat Pray Love is also unavoidably a story of privilege, which is a bit difficult to get around for those of us who can’t afford to spend a year traveling the world to heal our psychic pain. Roberts plays Gilbert, a writer who tells her astonished husband (Billy Crudup) she just doesn’t want to live in unhappiness anymore. In a twink, she’s taken up with a younger lover (James Franco), but their affair also slumps into unhappiness.
Realizing her problem is internal, Liz’s thoughts return to Ketut (Hadi Subiyanto), a ninth generation medicine man she met in Bali on a journalism assignment. And so she hatches a plan to go to Italy and “Eat,” visit an ashram in India and “Pray,” and return to Indonesia where, if Ketut’s palm reading was right, she just may find “Love.”
Murphy knows he’s under an obligation to keep his big-budget assignment glossy. He goes overboard bathing everyone in haloes of light to convey a spiritual “touch,” but that turns out to be the Glee creator’s worst sin here. Otherwise he makes an honest attempt to wring the best from Gilbert’s story and achieve emotional intimacy whenever possible. Murphy & Jennifer Salt’s screenplay cannily leaves out the part in which Gilbert secures a book contract in advance of her trip (y’know: not quite so spiritual), focusing instead on establishing the sincerity of Liz’s personal quest.
The Italy passage is all about rich food: from Napoleons to pasta and pizza to a Thanksgiving dinner. Oddly, Liz seems to have taught more than she’s learned here, having convinced a friend that she deserves to eat well and buy bigger jeans. Score one against eating disorders. Still, Liz regains her “appetite for life.”
In the film’s center, Liz tries to find her own center. India’s good for that, so they say, though her greatest teacher turns out not to be the guru she sought. Rather, she learns to let go of her past from a Texan named Richard (Richard Jenkins), her new friend with a guilty conscience. Jenkins’ single-take monologue about his own reason for being halfway around the world is one of the film’s highlights. Back in Bali, it’s time for atonement, and it’s not just Ketut who helps her to put it all together. She also finds unexpected romance with Felipe (Javier Bardem) on her way to enlightenment.
This isn’t David Lean’s Summertime, the ultimate romantic travelogue film from a female point-of-view (for starters, Eat Pray Love is forty minutes longer). Obviously, it all amounts to the McDonalds version of spirituality, but there is some (obvious) truth in the joy of travel and food, the need for a life of balance and reflection. Go ahead and “carpe diem,” but as for solving all your problems with a three-act structure, don’t try this at home. (Buy some plane tickets.)