After her bitter divorce, writer Elizabeth Gilbert traveled the world for a year. In Italy she ate and learned the language; in India she joined an ashram and meditated. In Bali, her final destination, she planned to devote herself to prayer, studying under a wizened medicine man named Ketut. Instead, she fell in love with a Brazilian businessman, achieving inner peace and a happy ending for the memoir she was already under contract to write. That book, Eat, Pray, Love, was released in 2006 and went on to become a publishing phenomenon, selling more than 7 million copies worldwide.
Most women brave enough to set out on such an adventure might come back with a diary they'd be obliged to call Eat, Pray, Dysentery. The symmetry of that convenient love, capping off the year Gilbert is now married to the man she met in Bali, whom she calls Felipe in that book and this year's best-selling sequel, Committed is a bit hard to swallow for some of us. Its fairy-tale quality, the one by which a woman's quest ends with a man, seemed less like real life and more like a Julia Roberts movie.
Which is why I found myself rather happily anticipating Eat Pray Love, the big-screen version of Gilbert's book directed by Glee and Nip/Tuck creator Ryan Murphy. (He shares a screenplay credit for the movie with Jennifer Salt.) Now that Eat, Pray, Love had lost its commas and become a movie actually starring Julia Roberts, I was no longer annoyed by how much it seemed like one; it had assumed its rightful place in the entertainment universe.
With a running time of 140 minutes that feels even longer, the film is hardly the playful frolic you'd hope for from Murphy, whose Glee is often 42 of the most joyous minutes on television. But Gilbert devotees should be thrilled with the film. Eat Pray Love is a lushly photographed adaptation that glosses over some details (like the fact that Liz got an advance to write about her spiritual journey) and takes the liberty of creating a sensible best-girlfriend character, Liz's publisher Delia (the no-nonsense Viola Davis). But it's otherwise a faithful rendering of Gilbert's text. The food styling is sumptuous I will dream of something I took to be a zucchini blossom oozing cheese and the stunning locations include many of the places Gilbert actually frequented, among them Ketut's house in Bali. (The medicine man is played by Hadi Subiyanto, a flute player the filmmakers found in Jakarta.)
As for Roberts, she's just right for the role of Gilbert, who is also tall and pretty and charismatic. Roberts looks fetching devouring pizza. She looks fetching in various sacklike ethnic outfits. She graciously allows herself to be shot looking haggard, although these images are usually closely followed by a demonstration of her breathtaking luminosity in, say, a to-die-for sari. (Outfits, jewelry and furnishings from the film, as well as goodies like Eat Pray Loveinspired soap, are available for sale on the Home Shopping Network.) And when her brown eyes well up with tears of gratitude, empathy or fear as they often do rather than making Liz seem like a crybaby, they convey a deep psychic wound, one the universe really should heal if it has any decency.
Have Ex, Will Travel
Yet it's a vaguely sourced wound, and her angst has a tepid quality, even though Liz's rationales for being a runaway wife and girlfriend are more fleshed out here than in Gilbert's frustratingly discreet memoir. As Felipe (Javier Bardem) says after she's rejected his offer of a romantic vacation on a desert isle, "What's the problem, Liz?" The same question might cross the minds of moviegoers. Liz's ex-husband Stephen (Billy Crudup) is no obvious villain, just a feckless sort who by his own admission has a tendency to get "sidetracked" (one semester of law school, some fleeting culinary experience, now pondering a master's in education). And while it is clear she doesn't want to have children when Delia hands her infant son to Stephen, Liz regards the package of baby and husband as if it were a bad oyster she might be obliged to swallow it isn't clear he's particularly desirous of them either.