NEW YORK –– Many of the off-kilter values that characterize contemporary Western society are showcased in “Eat Pray Love” (Columbia), the fact-based narrative of one woman’s yearlong globe-trotting quest for enlightenment and self-understanding.
Julia Roberts portrays Liz Gilbert, a New York travel writer in the throes of a midlife crisis. Bored with her husband Stephen (Billy Crudup), she initiates a divorce – emotionally blindsiding him – and, on the rebound, falls for David (James Franco), a much younger actor. Perhaps inevitably, their swiftly consummated affair fizzles, leaving Liz complaining to her happily married best friend, Delia (Viola Davis), that she has lost her appetite for life.
The solution? A 12-month sabbatical from everyday reality during which Liz plans to sample Italian cuisine in Rome, cultivate Hindu spirituality at an ashram in India and see what’s offered – metaphysically and otherwise – in Bali, Indonesia.
On the first stage of her journey, Liz develops a circle of laid-back friends who teach her how to enjoy life while scarfing down quantities of pasta, pizza and artichokes. Though she seemingly hits every restaurant in town, she gives the churches a pass, the implication being that she knows better than to look to Catholicism for insight.
So it’s off to the subcontinent and the religious establishment run by David’s female guru. (The unhealthy atmosphere of semi-idolatrous worship with which this guide is surrounded — first sensed as David and Liz sat in front of a small altar David had erected to her in his apartment – is reinforced by Liz’s dialogue with the ashram personnel.)
Liz is too distracted to get anywhere with her meditations until she gains the friendship and aid of a feisty, plainspoken Texan, Richard (an excellent Richard Jenkins). A long-standing visitor to the retreat, Richard is wrestling with the demons of his troubled past.
Returning to Bali – the opening scenes of the film are set during a previous sojourn there — Liz continues her soul tinkering under the guidance of kindly medicine man Ketut (Hadi Subiyanto). And romance comes calling again in the figure of Brazilian expatriate Felipe (Javier Bardem), himself the scarred veteran of a broken marriage.
Besides negating, or at least ignoring, the spiritual resources of Christianity, director and co-writer (with Jennifer Salt) Ryan Murphy’s overlong, ultimately exhausting screen version of Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling 2006 memoir displays an ambivalent attitude toward marriage.
Thus, Stephen’s emotionally voiced protest that he has taken vows for life and intends to uphold them is presented as a forlorn attempt to erect obstacles in Liz’s way. And, though Liz ostensibly spends much of her time in India trying to come to terms with her feelings of guilt over the break-up, the script has already celebrated the courage it required for her to walk out of the doomed union in search of something better.
As she progresses along the path of her pampered pilgrimage – the sight of Indian children gazing at her passing taxi from the litter-strewn margins of a highway is dealt with as nothing more than local “color” – Liz engages in interminable navel-gazing and confuses psychobabble in the mouths of her chosen mentors for wisdom. The result is a dramatically sputtering, spiritually barren slog to the final credits.
The film contains complex religious themes, acceptability of divorce, nonmarital and premarital situations, rear nudity, some sexual humor, an obscene gesture, a few uses of profanity and at least one rough and a half-dozen crude terms. The Catholic News Service classification is L – limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 – parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service. More reviews are available online.