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It's when Liz (still negotiating her divorce in New York City) takes up with an actor named David (James Franco) that she starts to seem less like a woman in an existential crisis than a woman with lousy taste in men. David is supposed to be her soul mate, but Murphy and Franco render him a self-dramatizing bohemian. Everyone, even Franco, seems to be laughing at the character. After a dinner party, Delia's salt-of-the-earth husband Andy (the delightful Mike O'Malley) drains the joy out of the romance by astutely noting how Liz and David, in matching leather jackets, seem to be morphing into each other just as, after several years of marriage, Liz had started to look and dress like Stephen.
So even if we can't take her pain all that seriously, we see why Liz needed to light out for foreign lands. I just wish Andy had turned up with an occasional care package to deliver some leveling, sensible comment. In Rome he might have pointed out that even as she aspires to dolce far niente the sublimely Italian art of doing nothing Liz suffers an anxiety of observation and a chronic need to define her state of being. He could have interrupted a depressingly chick-flickish scene in which Liz and her Swedish pal Sofi (Tuva Novotny) try to fit into tiny jeans to note that the women, inspired by Liz's bracing speech about empowering herself to enjoy eating, had initially gone shopping for bigger jeans. His take on Liz's year abroad as a whole, in fact, might have been that beautiful white people enjoy listening rapturously to moral lectures and fortune-cookie affirmations delivered by the old, the unattractive or the darker-skinned. Liz, of course, is the most obvious recipient of these wisdoms, and Roberts receives them beatifically. Her smile is still dazzlingly divine, but Eat Pray Love would not have suffered from a grin trim.
A Meditative Detour
Even, I suspect, for loyalists, Eat Pray Love will bog down in India, because while food consumption is fun to watch, the emptying of the mind is not. And then there's Richard from Texas (Richard Jenkins), the font of supposed wisdom Liz meets at the ashram. In real life, Richard Vogt, who dubbed Gilbert "Groceries" because she ate so much, became an Oprah-feted celebrity in his own right before his death earlier this year. Jenkins' natural dryness balances some of the sappy stuff Richard spouts, but even so, the character is mysteriously invasive. Why does this man feel so compelled to badger Liz with nicknames and complain about her lousy meditation habits?
Nonetheless, one of Richard's bossy slogans resonates: "You want to get to the castle, Groceries, you've got to swim the moat." He might have been talking about the movie. It's a shame our particular moat, the ashram of Pray, is so exhausting, because in the Love section Bardem proves himself a worthy castle. A man who looks like that should not, in theory, be able to pull off the role of a romantically wounded pussycat. But he does, and watching the relationship between Liz and Felipe evolve from a comforting friendship to a love that's both companionable and sexy is gratifying. Liz may have been self-involved when she responds to Ketut's loving welcome of "You, you, you" with "Me, me, me!" she might not be joking but we're still pleased to see her get her Julia Robertsstyle happy ending.