By Richard von Busack
An animator who helped shrink Julia Roberts to Tinkerbelle size for Hook told me “Even six inches of her is too much.” This seemed too mean a comment to repeat until I saw Eat Pray Love. Big as life, Roberts stars in a triple-decker sandwich of self-indulgence thick enough to choke a horse. Robert’s Liz is a chronically dissatisfied New York writer. Under cloudy financial and marital circumstances (the book made them clearer, apparently) she has a long lasting crisis over what she’s supposed to do next.
Her best friends have a baby—should she produce one too? Instead, after divorcing her husband (Billy Crudup with a thankless role and an even more thankless Dick Cavett hair cut) Liz heads off on an around the world voyage of self-discovery to Italy, India and Bali.
The prophecy was foretold; during her previous visit to the Indonesian island, a native healer (Hadi Subiyanto) she described as “looking like Yoda” told her she will lose all her money in America and return to teach him English.
It happens thus: director Ryan Murphy (the creator of Glee) goes into beautification mode. Beauty shots of perfect bowls of pasta (close-ups of Roberts slurping noodles with her new lips), exotic ashrams and emerald rice paddies. In a penance sequence in India, Liz goes to worship a photo of a female guru, scrub floors with a rag, and takes an all too short vow of silence. It’s the grand tour without Denpassar, “Bali Belly,” “Dehli Belly” or touts or hustlers of any kinds.
Eat Pray Love is a smooth fantasy, not of pluckiness but of an unlimited MasterCard, with too available or weakling men in flashback parade. It’s as rich as a spy thriller; the only difference is that Roberts isn’t shooting the natives this time.
As one of the weaklings, James Franco plays a New York actor named David Piccolo (which come to think of it is about his range here—he’s piping). The film is also hard cheese for Crudup, especially since jettisoned his own marriage, just as Roberts does here, in the movie World Traveler, and for the same reasons, too. When the Crudup film was released, you could hear the critics’ cries of moral outrage for miles.
As she tries to apologize to these dropped men, Liz gets some spiritual beating up in India at the hands of hippiesh Richard from Texas. He’s played by Richard Jenkins, in his least believable role ever, with a drunkalogue Olivier couldn’t make live.
Liz must also resist flirtations from foreign studs who offer themselves to her. First, an Italian language teacher who looks like an Armani model gives her deep meaningful looks. In Bali, an Australian or something offers her a chance to do some nude swimming last night, baring his perfect butt to the camera. At last in Bali, naturally, she finds Mr. Right: a Brazillionaire jewelry importer (Javier Bardem).
The movie is deeply overlong; the beginning sequences seem the most easy to cut. In New York, Viola Davis is there to be that kind of old movie bosom pal, there to calm the lead’s every conniption fit. So much for the feminism of Eat Pray Love, since the film has to build a long hard case for Liz doing what anyone might want to do, while insisting that it’s strange that a woman would want to do it. You can hear the studio executives saying “Wait, why doesn’t she want to settle down and have a baby with her husband? Explain it to me again.”
I gorge on travel shows. I can even can put up with the ultra-patronizing knuckleheads on Globe Trekker (Justine Shapiro, I don’t mean you). Rick Steves, the archdweeb, standing in his all-Target wardrobe in front of every old building from Lisbon to Tehran? Him I’ll watch him until my wife shrieks for the remote control.
So I have to admit that Robert Richardson’s landscapes kept me tranquilized. A little known edifice from ancient Rome, the Augustoreum, is beautifully lit, and moreover it hasn’t been on screen recently. And how long has it been since a big movie was made in Bali?
I don’t mind copping to a little disgusting envy. The report of the advance Gilbert got ($200,000 is what you hear) to live abroad is something any writer would want. And these days who doesn’t feel the ambient toxicity of life in the USA, the need for silence, beauty and good food? The USA gets it a little here, but there’s no feeling for the troubles, no grit, no misery, nothing made visual that’s like the guttery critique by Henry Miller. Not being Miller, I’ll expurgate: if he knew how to do it, an American would jump down his own stomach and shovel his own wastes out of his back passage.
There’s no way for a movie this rich to make our life look as spiritually poor mouthed as this movie claims it is. (Can anyone credit Eat Pray Love’s argument that we’re in trouble because we’re not praying hard enough?)
Liz’s crisis came because she “married too young” (we see the flashbacks, and Roberts is exactly the age she is right now today at the wedding, on the unhappy side of 40). And she stalls Bardem remorselessly, even though he’s in full force flirt mode, with a brand new Jeep and a million-dollar villa. He cocks one great warm bedroom eye, eyelid closed in half-siesta, right to the camera. The man could play a credible love scene with himself.
I was telling a friend I was going to see Eat Pray Love, and she said, hopefully, “the one with the Spanish guy in it?” We both knew which Spanish guy she meant, such is Bardem’s Iberian musk. But who could explain Eat Pray Love’s contention that a man like this has been celibate for ten years, ever since his last romantic tragedy?
What’s good about the movie, besides the vistas? Deserved royalty checks to Neil Young (“Harvest Moon” and “Heart of Gold” are played in full). Roberts has the right physique and face for saris. She isn’t quite built for the little black slip she buys in Italy; it’ll take more than an alleged 10 pounds of pasta-gained weight to turn Julia Roberts into Santa Sophia Loren.
It’s ultimately the premise which sinks the movie: The email guff she pauses over thoughtfully before sending, an appeal for money for her other Balinese healer, a request for funds that reads like it was sent from Nigeria. There’s facile relationship with the divine (“God, I’m a great fan of your work”) or the implication that sitting in a lotus position and chanting prayers to a graven image is the way out of spiritual crisis. There’s the spurious generosity of the break-up letter (“I believe, with every molecule of my body, you will find the person you want”); I guess David will have to be celibate for ten years now. There’s the glowing nimbus on Robert’s mane, as if she were the patron saint of beauticians. There are the roving accordions in Italy and the “rogue elephant” in India (a gentle old cow with pigment spots).
There’s the self-esteem issues Liz obviously doesn’t have: “He’s won the lottery,” she says, describing a man lucky enough to go to bed with her. Who thinks of themselves that way? Who is that is a line like that addressed to, if not to the courtesan-class or the women (and men, I guess) who want to be in it? And there is ultimately the lack of serious knowledge of the places visited. (Incidentally, the problem with durian fruit is that it smells like dirty feet, not that it tastes like them.)
The backbone of Eat Pray Love is Liz’s search for the one word that describes her. Again, who thinks in these terms? One word? It’s like something Don Draper would say about a product on Mad Men. After 2 1/2 hours in the company of this woman, the audience might be able to suggest a single word…maybe with an obscene gerund as garnish.
What happened to Roberts? Plastic surgery and unimaginable privilege embalmed the rangy, plainspoken, glorious haired actress with the rich, shy grin. It’s the kind of movie where everyone bends to her; Roberts might as well have put a photo of herself on stage at that Indian ashram. This kind of celebrity-worship filmmaking doesn’t do an actress any favors, despite what the publicity machines say. Her character couldn’t have gotten deeper into her navel if she were the commander of an Edgar Rice Burroughs-style Iron Mole.