It is easy to watch Eat Pray Love, the pretty, languid film adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling journal of self-discovery. Sun-drenched close-ups of asparagus drizzled just so on a plate next to very good-looking bread in Rome: aaaaah. A Balinese beach, with Julia Roberts gazing out upon it: oooooh. Javier Bardem at the end of the protagonist’s yearlong journey, waiting: tasty.
Director and co-adapter Ryan Murphy’s film will likely do the trick for a good percentage of those who loved Gilbert’s memoir. The movie has the advantage of getting more fun as it goes. Because if there’s one truism in life, it’s that sex with Bardem in Bali is more fun than celibacy on an ashram in India.
Some, though, may find themselves struggling to engage with Gilbert as a character. While Murphy has a shrewd commercial instinct (he’s largely responsible for Nip/Tuck and Glee on TV), he couldn’t do a thing to save the film version of Running With Scissors. Some of that same shiny phoniness creeps through here. The very elements of the book Eat Pray Love that helped make it a success in 40 languages — the breezy prose, the relentless sorting-through of dissatisfactions, a steady stream of intriguing sights — turn the film into a travelogue with a little spiritual questing on the side.
Nothing is made too sticky for Manhattan travel writer Liz, played by Roberts. Her marriage to a charming flake (Billy Crudup) has gone cold, and she gets up the nerve to move on and out. Her rebound lover ( James Franco) steers her toward a spiritual path, while Liz’s friend and confidant (Viola Davis) wonders if the heroine is simply getting lost in an indulgent haze of restlessness.
First stop: Rome, where it’s all about food and pining for love. Then, on an ashram in India, Liz digs into herself with the aid of a fellow traveler from Texas. This man is played by Richard Jenkins, as reliable a character actor as we have in movies today. Murphy has the sense to shoot his confessional monologue, a grim story of what brought him to India, in a single extended take. For a few minutes, a glossy showcase of a picture becomes about more urgent and painful matters.
The film is a fairly faithful transcription of events, even though Liz, as played by Roberts, carries a faint air of entitlement. I’m not sure this could be avoided on screen. What glides by on the page can provoke unwanted scrutiny when visualized. Liz learns to assess herself outside her usual New York life and materialism. How? By putting together an exotic travel package of unspecified cost and unlimited personal payoff.
That’s nice for her. I do wish, however, that Murphy had found a way inside the woman at the center of things.