Eat, Pray, Love is blasé fare
This is a totally satisfying movie if you just want to be lulled by beautiful vistas, delicious Italian food and Julia Roberts. Or if you want to imagine a life that is so cushy and privileged that you can solve your problems by traveling and finding the man of your dreams (tall, dark and handsome, of course) in some exotic locale.
Based on the best selling memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat Pray Love tells the story of a well-to-do woman's journey of self-discovery after her divorce. Having realized that she has either been getting with a man or leaving a man for most of her life, she decides to take a year off to pay attention to herself and rediscover herself as an individual rather than in relation to a man.
She goes to three different countries to pursue each of the activities in the title: Italy to eat, India to pray and Indonesia to love. In each place we follow Liz on her adventures and meet the people who help her along the path to self-discovery.
In Italy she meets a Swedish woman who has similar reasons for traveling. In India she meets a curmudgeonly Texan (Richard Jenkins) who beneath his rough exterior is as soft as clouds and down comforters. In Bali she gives herself over to a shaman to gain wisdom and by some serendipitous circumstance, meets Felipe (Javier Bardem looking as foxy as ever) at a bar.
As far as filmmaking goes, this movie is not groundbreaking or memorable, but it isn't bad either. It follows many conventions of Hollywood romances/self-discovery/road films. There are the beautiful locations. There is the weak man Liz just divorced acting as the foil to the strapping god that is Bardem's character. There is the old man imparting wisdom in the character of Richard Jenkins. Although the writing and the character are pretty hackneyed, Jenkins is a wonderful actor and does the best he can with what he has been given.
I do commend the movie though, for featuring a strong woman as its lead, who can be simultaneously sharp and vulnerable. Complexity, it isn't much to ask for in female characters, but you rarely find it. And Roberts, to her credit, gives a wonderful performance.
She remains glowing and spunky, as you expect any character Julia Roberts plays to be, but she can come off as beaten, worn and sad as well, all the while maintaining her radiance. Her unflappability does not undercut the story or the character's development at all. It simply makes it hard to dislike Liz.
Despite my snarky remarks at the beginning of this article about the character's class privilege (and general privilege) I do not think the theme-the idea of losing sight of oneself and needing to find oneself-is trivial at all. And I do not mean to trivialize Gilbert's actual situation, struggles or feelings of vulnerability or sadness.
I do think though, that the film is disingenuous because it frames itself as the story of a woman looking to find herself apart from a man while centering the climactic question of fulfillment and happiness around the relationship between Liz and Felipe, (as if that is the only way she can be fulfilled). And while this may be true for many people (which is fine and I think can be beautiful) it closes off the possibilities of other kinds of love or human relationships based on deep and profound affection as fulfilling by themselves. We return to the same coupled, phallocentric economy of affection and love as the only possibility of female fulfillment.
You might site the story of Wayans as the film's more humanistic approach to love, but it felt completely tacked on and hollow to me. It seemed like an empty apology for having spent so much energy on the Felipe/Liz romance.
I did not immediately start thinking about these questions or critiques after watching Eat Pray Love. All I really wanted to do was stuff my face, travel and find my knight. And maybe that is all the movie sets out to do. If you take it at that, it feels like a delicious Neapolitan pizza. It hits the spot.