Apparently, there’s another demographic of the careerist, self-aware independent woman. You know, not the one that sleeps with every eligible bachelor in the greater metropolitan area and swaps stories about it with her besties over flirtinis. Rather, the kind who’s actually just looking for love without the misadventure. Author Elizabeth Gilbert, played in this film adaptation of her fantastically successful memoir, “Eat Pray Love,” by a buoyant Julia Roberts, is the poster girl for this latter type.
After returning from a travel-writing trip to Indonesia, “Liz” gives up a fecklessly cute man-boy husband (Billy Crudup) and a copasetic but ill-suited May-December lover (James Franco) in search of “herself.” Heeding the portents of an elderly medicine man she met in Bali months prior, she leaves New York to understand why she’s so professionally successful but so romantically bereft.
Despite the magnificence of Rome, the first portion of the film feels like something we’ve seen before — “Under The Tuscan Sun II” maybe — but with fewer male companions. Liz’s dallying around Italy is captured in a tired montage of eating, wine “therapy” and gelato spooning, set to music that sounds like off-brand Burt Bacharach. A particularly low point is a scene where Liz sits down to tackle a plate of spaghetti, in a sauce-sucking farce better suited for a stain-remover ad than anything that should pass as a “hilarious female food indulgence” sequence in a romcom.
But once Liz visits Calcutta to study under a guru, the film starts to get more realistic. Neurotic city Liz can’t seem to shut her mind off enough to meditate. She unwillingly befriends the show-stealing Richard from Texas, played by the fantastic Richard Jenkins, almost reprising his role as the spectral irreverent-advice-doling father in “Six Feet Under.” Richard elects himself as Liz’s bullish life coach, encouraging her to just “deal.” Between Richard’s gift-shop platitudes and semi-tragic personal history and the plight of a young Brahmin girl who’s betrothed to a man she hardly knows, Liz begins to reconcile her relationships by re-imagining them.
While much of the camera work and imagery is uninspired early, once the film reaches Calcutta, Liz’s memory-hallucinations capture the break-up recovery evocatively.
But onto Bali. There, Liz revisits the medicine man that first predicted her life change. She meditates every morning in an open-air cabana straight from a fashion magazine shoot. She befriends a domestic-abuse-surviving single mother who tends her wounds (literally). And then Javier Bardem enters as an accidental suitor, rounding out our tour of quixotic brown-eyed men.
There are moments of “Eat Pray Love” that come across as glossily as a magazine travel spread, but those superficialities are tempered by an earnest probing into the dynamics of a relationship, like a more ambitious, lady version of “High Fidelity,” minus the mix tapes — but then, Javier Bardem appears, bringing those sappy mix tapes along with him.
A lot of women will view this movie as a reflective life-lesson. Others will argue that the bourgeois notion of traveling abroad to “find one’s self” is about little more than escaping one’s comfort zone. Either way, there are enough lush visuals (in both man and landscape) and digestible cultural relativism to make for an amusing jaunt through rom-com land.
— Natalie Elliott