“I want to go someplace where I can marvel at something,” the unhappy Liz (Julia Roberts) tells her sympathetic but skeptical best friend (Viola Davis) in Eat Pray Love. Liz, a writer based in New York, has good reason to shake up her life: She’s gone through a painful divorce (is there any other kind?). Her relationship with the rebound guy (James Franco) isn’t working out, and she feels disconnected from everything. What’s left to do but journey to Italy, India and Indonesia in search of herself?
Based on the mega bestseller by Elizabeth Gilbert — who made this same trip, albeit with a book contract — the film version is pure wish-fulfillment fantasy. Who doesn’t want to eat her weight in pasta, fill the spiritual gaps in her life and then fall madly in love with Spain’s finest export (Javier Bardem)?
Director/screenwriter Ryan Murphy (creator of TV’s Glee and Nip/Tuck) really only had to hire a good cinematographer and a solid cast to keep from screwing up things, and he manages beautifully. Bali is going to look fabulous pretty much any way you shoot it. And if Eat Pray Love offers little in the way of surprise and a few too many platitudes about “balance,” if it lacks the self-deprecating humor and emotional connection of Gilbert’s book, it’s still an entertaining travelogue that urges you to eat carbs, forget dieting and just go up a jeans size because men will want you anyway. Fantasy, yes. Male cynics will sneer, but any woman who ever turned down a gooey slice of pizza will know what I’m talking about.
Roberts, of course, makes the movie. If you have ever doubted that she’s a star, note the scene in which Liz, sitting outdoors at a little Roman cafe, watches a couple kissing and then glances down at her gorgeous plate of pasta. The lascivious grin she gives her spaghetti packs enough voltage to light up the theater.
Also excellent is Richard Jenkins as a straight-talking Texan whom Liz meets at the ashram and who guides her matter-of-factly on her spiritual journey, and Bardem as her eventual love interest, who actually weeps at one point. You think women liked him before? Wait until they see him sniffling over saying goodbye to his vacationing son. Billy Crudup fares less well as Liz’s husband, possibly because the script has turned him into something of a buffoon instead of just a guy from whom his wife has grown apart.
The adult promotional tie-ins for Eat Pray Love — Lonely Planet and STA Travel are the “official” travel partners of the movie, just for starters — are off-putting but understandable. The film is far from perfect, but it’s likely to inspire more than few quests for balance — or at least a fabulous bowl of linguine.
Cast: Julia Roberts, Javier Bardem, Richard Jenkins, James Franco, Viola Davis, Billy Crudup.
Director: Ryan Murphy.
Screenwriters: Ryan Murphy, Jennifer Salt. Based on the book by Elizabeth Gilbert.
Producers: Dede Gardner.
A Columbia release. Running time: 139 minutes. Brief strong language, some sexual references, male rear nudity.