It’s quite ironic that Eat Pray Love, the film adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling memoir, is being pegged as “boring” or “uneventful.” It is in these very qualities—the estimations of our immediate perceptions, or reactions from a persistent quest for superficial gratification—that the film cautions against placing value. Rather, Eat Pray Love champions soul-searching in quiet spaces and, ultimately, everyday places.
To uncover this truth, however, writer Liz Gilbert (Julia Roberts) must depart from the everyday. She divorces her husband of eight years (Billy Crudup), leaving behind an unfulfilling daily routine to embark on a journey of self-reflection and personal discovery. First, a rebound romance (and a wholly unnecessary story segment) with a younger man (James Franco); then, the title’s promise: eating in Italy, prayer in India, and love, finally, in Bali, Indonesia.
Each chapter moves along leisurely yet gracefully, handled with care and precision by director Ryan Murphy. The pace is deliberately slow, and the impact is slow to coalesce. Neither Murphy’s direction nor his script, penned in tandem with Jennifer Salt, assaults with life lessons or teachable moments, and Liz’s journey is overseen by a certain self-awareness—a proper suspicion in its own premise—that prevents the story from feeling preachy or didactic. It’s refreshing that a film is able convey a point of view without pounding us over the head or intruding on our own sensibilities.
The weight of Eat Pray Love is never obvious, but it does ever-so-slowly seep into the edges of the frame, like the heavenly aura of sunlight poking through cracks in ancient walls, or the fuzzy glow of headlights reflected in bubbles of rain on a car’s windshield, or feathery parmesan flakes floating toward a destination of noodles.
On a few occasions, a swirl of present motion morphs into a memory for Liz: a memory of her life pre-sabbatical, often involving her now ex-husband. Here we can apply the pleasant pull of the present to the gentle, even joyful tug of the past. The mere proposition, entirely underutilized by the film, of stepping back into the real world, of examining the deficits of a former existence, is stirring—disquieting as much as it is quietly depicted.
Too quiet, perhaps, are the simple pleasures stacked throughout the film. Murphy handles the material so carefully that at times he seems hesitant to tackle anything that could prove even slightly jarring. Liz befriends a man from Texas while practicing prayer in India, and when he, named Richard and portrayed by a sensitive Richard Jenkins, describes his falling-out with his family back home, we see him only from the side. It’s as if Murphy was afraid that Richard Jenkins’ distraught face might crack the camera lens. A lengthy catharsis is muted, and a potential power chord is wasted.
Similarly, the film doesn’t get too specific about the sticky situation that drove Liz away from her former life. An anxious gaze, an unnerving atmosphere, and words—Liz’s admission of discontent—are all we have to go on. (Indeed, we witness most of the film’s events—the desires, the transformations, and the general goings-on—but seldom do we feel them.)
It’s a good thing, then, that we are in the company of so many trusting faces: Viola Davis and Mike O’Malley as Liz’s friends and a functional married pair, the aforementioned Billy Crudup, James Franco, and Richard Jenkins, an eventual lover in Javier Bardem, and, lest we should forget, Ms. Roberts herself.
Julia Roberts carries the film elegantly and effortlessly. Did we expect anything less? There is never any question that she (or Liz, for that matter) is entirely committed to the journey. Though the role does not require too much from her beyond the skill of slight gesture and subtle expression, the far-too-few times she is allowed to further extend herself, Roberts’ ear-to-ear grin and infectious cackle reignite the screen.
That’s not to say the flame of the film ever truly dies: it’s a slow burn that flickers occasionally, offering gentle insight but lacking the punch of resonance. And even though the film is a tad too long and relies a bit too often on mainstream machinations—caricaturized local players, pizza and pasta (and not much else) in Italy, and an M.I.A. song heralding our arrival in India—it’s hard to come down too hard on something so sensibly crafted with such good intentions.
Directed by Ryan Murphy. Written by Ryan Murphy & Jennifer Salt. Rated PG-13 (a light PG-13) for brief strong language (very brief), some sexual references (very slight) and male rear nudity (one, maybe two, nude rears). Runtime is 2 hours, 13 minutes.