There are worse ways to spend an evening in lockdown than watching Julia Roberts search for enlightenment in Italy, India and Bali.
I couldn’t remember much about the wildly popular Elizabeth Gilbert memoir I read ages ago, other than my general verdict of “too hippy-dippy for my tastes, but it was okay I guess”. I honestly had no great expectations about the film, and, approached with this mindset, this leisurely adaptation was an enjoyable glossy travelogue starring one of the most radiant and watchable movie stars of all time.
Just as in the book, Roberts’ Liz takes a year-long break from her life as a successful writer in New York, after a broken marriage and dysfunctional love affair with a younger man (James Franco) leaves her empty and floundering. First stop on her schedule is Italy, where she spends four months learning Italian language, feasting on scrumptious Italian cuisine, and learning the Italian art of doing nothing. Then it’s off to an ashram in India, spending four months learning meditation, before the final stop in Bali where she visits the local shaman-like medicine man and attempts to blend all of her spiritual lessons into a balanced life of inner peace. Instead she gets thrown off-balance by a chance meeting with a hunky and soulful Brazilian divorcé (Javier Bardem).
For a movie that’s supposedly about being brave and putting yourself outside of your comfort zone, Eat Pray Love feels as cozy as a pair of well-worn yoga pants, and is bathed in soft romantic glow from start to finish. It also runs into the difficulties of adapting a book about internal transformation into a visual medium: Liz’ lessons of self-realisation are usually expressed through voice-over and come off as awkwardly inserted platitudes most of the time. For the sake of shorter runtime, the entire segment with James Franco could have been ditched altogether, the movie didn’t have to follow the book faithfully to convey Liz’ inner turmoil that sets her off on a journey.
While the whole quest for enlightenment thing left me cold, Liz’ globe-trotting is still thoroughly enjoyable, full as it is of beautiful exotic landscapes and cities photographed at sunset or sunrise, mouth-watering close-ups of food, colourful locals and appealing supporting players. Viola Davis as Liz’ best friend back in New York doesn’t get anywhere near enough to do, but wonderful Richard Jenkins is a standout as an irascible Texan looking for peace at the same Indian ashram. His character is annoyingly written, but Jenkins is just too good an actor not to give him dimension and humanity; Jenkins and Roberts also play off each other rather nicely, as do Bardem and Roberts later. Film critics weren’t kind to it, but as an undemanding light fare, Eat Pray Love is fine.
P.S. I swear I audibly sighed out loud at least four times during the Italian segment. Italy is just magical.