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Eat Pray Love

Julia Roberts plays a vaguely dissatisfied woman in an explicitly unsatisfying movie.

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Then I went to Bali: Julia Roberts checks out the scenery with Javier Bardem.
  • Then I went to Bali: Julia Roberts checks out the scenery with Javier Bardem.

If I had to choose between eating, praying and making love, I'm pretty sure I'd choose eating. Who wants to die of malnutrition in a lover's embrace? 

Fortunately for Elizabeth Gilbert, the protagonist and narrator (I shudder to say heroine) of Eat Pray Love, she gets to do all three. The prayer, however, is of the more modern variety (at least among the privileged), and the lovemaking probably won't get her to the Heaven we hear preached about on TV, where gluttony seems to be no impediment to eternal life.

Based on a best-selling memoir, and directed by Ryan (Glee, Nip/Tuck) Murphy, it's a movie about living a better life -- and it cost me two hours and 10 minutes of my life that I'll never get back.

When the story of Eat Pray Love begins, Liz Gilbert (Julia Roberts) is a successful, globe-trotting New York writer married to a spirited ne'er-do-well (Billy Crudup) who's crazy in love with her. But for some reason, she's no longer in love with him. So she rolls over in bed one night and tells him she doesn't want to be married any more.

Thus begins a new and uncertain phase in her life. She launches it by having a relationship with a charming, young, struggling actor (James Franco). But for some reason, this doesn't work. So it's off on a journey of self-discovery.

"Eat" takes place in Italy, where she decides not to feel guilty about gaining a few pounds. "Pray" takes her to India, where she lives at an ashram and meets an American (Richard Jenkins) who's been trying to forgive himself for more than a decade for something he did at rock bottom. Finally, she finds "Love" in Bali with a Brazilian businessman (Javier Bardem), and she helps a single mother, divorced from her abusive husband, buy a dream home.

This all supposedly happened to Gilbert, but it feels more like Murphy, who co-wrote the screenplay, simply made it up. Everything about Eat Pray Love is aggressively inauthentic: Liz narrates her odyssey, so we're told everything we need to experience, and time after time, she explains the lessons that we never see dramatized. What we get instead is a series of stock encounters, banal insights and bland sit-com humor. 

Murphy is good at two things: expressing the pain of social outsiders, and staging Broadway-style dance numbers to pop music. But Liz is hardly an outsider, and as far as we know, Roberts can't sing and dance. So Murphy is way out his element here. 

The actors glide along through their insipid material with professional aplomb, and only a few of them, in a moment here and there, break through: Crudup, who could charm the gun from Charlton Heston's cold dead hand, does so at the couple's divorce negotiation, and again later, in a flashback to their wedding; and Jenkins, a superb character actor, is alert and even intriguing, until his character tearfully explains how, driving drunk, he almost ran over his child. (And Liz thinks she needs to forgive herself -- for getting divorced.)

The biggest hole in Eat Pray Love is its failure to help us understand exactly why Liz is so disappointed with herself. The only answer I can discern is because she tells us over and over that she is. Her self-absorption reminds me of a joke by Lily Tomlin from the 1970s, back when celebrities regularly bought themselves redemption at the hem of some exotic guru: "You gotta have enough bread for material things, like plane tickets to India, to learn to give up material things, like plane tickets to India."

The India sequence in Eat Pray Love is especially pathetic. We get a few images of poverty before the ashram jokes kick in: Liz, it seems, came all the way from New York to meet the ashram's famous leader, but the exalted one has gone to New York. "Sounds like one of her little tricks," says the dryly humored acolyte who breaks the bad news. And the "selfless devotional work" that Liz does scrubbing floors seems like a good way to get the place clean without having to pay for it (reverse outsourcing, you could say).

I saw Eat Pray Love with a preview audience that watched it silently and chuckled at the gentle humor. When it ended, they all filed out of the theater in a line that moved slowly toward the back doors -- rather than leaving more quickly through the door at the front of the theater. I wanted to put little bells around their necks and ask them to moo for me. Did they not pay attention to what they'd just seen? Or did they want to enjoy a few minutes more of free air conditioning? It's something to think about after a movie that offered nothing better.

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