The most gorgeous among the recent crop of films, “Eat Pray Love” is like getting three for the price of one. “Eat” is a feast for the senses; “Pray” a flawed exercise; and “Love” a lush story. Adapted from Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling memoirs, the movie also plays like a four-part television mini-series starting with a pilot episode. Apart from director Ryan Murphy’s modest display of versatility, it stands out because of its classy production design and master-class cinematography that are among this year’s best.
The book about Gilbert’s journey after a painful divorce took off after Oprah Winfrey blessed it and readers embraced its theme and exuberant prose. The book also sparked talk about feminism. Many saw the author’s flight from a stifling marriage and her trek of self-discovery, a man’s exclusive domains in the old days, as a feminist triumph.
Oprah and Gilbert straddle the two sides of a movement that was born decades before the Victorian era. On the one hand are hardliners on women’s liberty and equality (“some of us are becoming the men we want to marry”). On the other, moderates who fight for rights “with dignity . . . without blemishing the delicacy of their sex.” But the two sides are deadlocked over the question of love, a dilemma captured by Julia Roberts’s panic and anguish when Liz rejects her new lover’s invitation to build a life together. “I don’t have to love you to prove that I love myself,” she cries. Panic because she doesn’t want to lose him, and anguish because accepting him could destroy her feminist core.
“Eat Pray Love” the movie has a fitful start, sketching the breakup of Liz’s marriage to Steve (Billy Crudup) and her brief affair with David (James Franco), a “rebel-poet-yogi from Yonkers,” a yoga devotee. The film’s evasiveness over why both relationships fail is puzzling and robs Liz’s dramatic moments of their power. With the reasons fuzzy, her dumping of Steve and David could be dismissed as being heartless. Her spiral into depression is only hinted at, so the healing comes not as an act of grace but as a footnote. When she forgives, one asks, what for?
This starter gives us a glimpse of Gilbert’s self-pooh-poohing humor. Liz attends a reading of her play and listens to David reciting lines such as “your love is like a hot panini.” “Did I write that?” she asks. The awfulness is punctuated by her play’s title — “Permeable Membrane” in the book, “Impermeable Membrane” in the movie.
A convivial first episode, “Eat” is a distillation of the sensual delights of Italian life and a lesson in the pleasure of doing nothing, “dolce far niente” — thanks to Gilbert, a phrase now almost as familiar to many Americans as savoir faire. The dishes that restore Liz’s appetite are actually simple but, photographed with the same gusto that Italians devour their pizza (and watch football), they are transformed into gourmand fare. Olive oil drips like honey on asparagus, smoked salmon brightens up a plate of antipasti, and mozzarella melts into gooey strings. The camera avoids the travel-brochure clichés of Rome and Naples, lingering longest on the ruins of Portico d’Ottavia where Liz reflects on the ruins of her life.
In one scene, a cranky landlady tells Liz, “You American weemen come to Italy only to eet pasta and sausage,” a perfectly innocent remark. But for those with an ear for innuendo, it might as well refer to liberated travelers of some repute. It’s a measure of Liz’s morality that when the second entrée in the signora’s menu is offered to her, she says no.
At the heart of the movie is a hollow that belies Liz’s supposed quest for change, balance and spirituality. Shot in an ashram in India, “Pray” has its roots in New York, where Liz tearfully seeks divine aid over her marital distress. That’s the last prayer we hear, unless we count meditation. But prayer is a reaching out to the Other while meditation is a retreat into ever-deeper layers of the Self. As a meditation student, Liz probably gets a D anyway and whatever enlightenment she finds comes from the snippy Texan Richard (Richard Jenkins), part pop psychologist and part guru of forgiveness who, as Liz says, “speaks in bumper sticker.” They bond too late and not too closely. When Richard confesses his failings in a drawn-out monologue, delivered perfectly like a stage pro by Jenkins, the movie hits its first big false note.
Followed by another: a fantasy flashback wherein bride Liz in an ashram sari and groom Steve in a white suit dance the aborted waltz of their wedding party. Another scene, apparently meant to be a symbolic and mystical meeting between Liz and the elephant-headed god Ganesh, falls flat as the gorgeous Dumborella upstages an amused, somewhat petrified Roberts.
“Love” is a well-scripted romance. Liz finds in Brazilian businessman Felipe (Javier Bardem) her complimentary opposite in a story that unwraps as sweetly and magically as its setting, Indonesia’s Bali. Cinematographer Robert Richardson adds a sultry patina to the island in the same way that he captures the modern and timeless textures of Italy, and the cacophony of color that is India. Totally not intimidated by his debut in a Hollywood film, Hadi Subiyanto plays “no-teeths” medicine man Ketut with poise and subtlety, his rapport with Liz rivaling that of Bardem’s. As for the Spanish actor, he spices his role with feminist-slaying sensitivity, every shifting emotion traceable on his face and in his eyes.
Gathered around Roberts is a bright cast led by Crudup doing his goofiest best in an ambiguous role, and the ever-cerebral Franco. Viola Davis as Liz’s best friend reflects some of Oprah’s aura. Luca Argentero as Liz’s Italian conversation partner Giovanni, has the goods and the style of the late Marcello Mastroianni, if the Italians haven’t yet noticed.
Meanwhile, Roberts remains a problem the film business loves to have. Being a pillar of the star system, she always gets cast in a dual role, as the character and as herself. In “Eat Love Pray” Liz and Roberts compete for attention, with Roberts coming out on top. A director would have to work harder to make the Lizes and the other pretty women of the scripts prevail over Julia the star. It’s been done before. That director is probably not Murphy, but everyone deserves a second chance.