Eat Pray Love

EAT PRAY LOVE. Starring: Julia Roberts, James Franco, Billy Crudup, Viola Davis, and Javier Bardem. Directed by Ryan Murphy. Rated  M (Infrequent coarse language). 140 min.

This movie is a film version of the writings of American author, Elizabeth Gilbert, and is based on her memoir, “Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia,” which was published in 2006. Gilbert’s book remained on the New York Times Best Seller list for a very long time. Bringing this popular book to the screen requires a degree of sensitivity that has to reflect the nature of the response that US audiences gave, show respect for the integrity of another medium which keeps the spirit of the book’s appeal alive, and demonstrate quality acting and direction. The film, which is interestingly co-produced by Brad Pitt, is only partially successful in fulfilling these aims. The movie tries to capture the tragedy of Elizabeth’s heart-break, but also stimulate viewers with the joy of a conflicted person’s private search for happiness.

Julia Roberts plays the part of Elizabeth Gilbert, who experiences a painful divorce. After the break-down of her marriage, she embarks on a year-long journey to discover her true self, and risks almost everything to experience profound change in her life. Her journey is epic in nature as she travels the globe in search of the inner peace and harmony that she is looking for, but which she has never found. She experiences the sensual pleasure of eating in Italy, the power of prayer in India, and finds love in Indonesia. Few actresses would attempt to attack this role, but Julia Robert’s brings to it her usual radiance and spontaneity. She is on camera virtually all the time, smiling, crying, and looking photogenic. However, ultimately, she delivers a performance that doesn’t say a great deal about the personal growth of Elizabeth Gilbert. As a result, the movie leaves one with the feeling of shallowness and superficiality. Whatever is there in Gilbert’s book doesn’t translate effectively to the screen.

By way of coping with a husband (Billy Crudup), with whom she is unhappy,  Elizabeth forms a relationship with a much younger man (James Franco). The relationship fails, and she leaves him. She puts her job in New York on hold, and goes in search of self-discovery. Viola Davis plays the part of Elizabeth’s best friend who has begun a similar search. Elizabeth finds her solution in a final love affair with Felipe (Javier Bardem) in Indonesia. Given Elizabeth’s search, it is hard to accept that the solution lies in her forging a love relationship with a man that may again fail.

The film is a wonderful travelogue. Three countries are captured extremely scenically in the travels, but because Elizabeth’s personality never really changes, the film suffers from a lack of depth.  Apart from some heavy philosophical introspections, and some good acting moments by Roberts, Franco, and Bardem, the movie fails to leave you seriously moved. Elizabeth’s search to find herself comes across as self-indulgent rather than dramatic, or inherently interesting, and she seeks personal discovery of a spirituality that is almost entirely ego-centric. Maybe the problem is that Gilbert’s story needs to be read rather than heard or seen.

This movie also is overlong, though it is never hard to experience Julia Robert’s particular radiance in action. The locations are wonderful, and they all capture the ambience and spirit of the countries that are shown. However, the film is full of clichés, and, overall, it doesn’t greatly nurture or nourish the soul.

Peter W. Sheehan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

Sony Pictures.

Out October 7, 2010.