There are films that test a movie critic, and I imagine that Eat Pray Love is going to become a solid example of such a film.
Back in 1966, a little movie directed by John Huston came out called, The Bible: In the Beginning…. Huston also starred in the film, along with George C. Scott, Richard Harris, Ava Gardner, Peter O’Toole, and several others. You may know it. Upon it’s release, not one critic was heard to say, “That movie was awful. I don’t believe any of that crap happened.”
While the story, whether original or based on a previous work, is certainly fair game in the world of film criticism, the thing has gone wrong when you get to the point that what you are actually doing is reviewing the book, and not the film. It’s difficult, usually, to know just how far is too far, but I will bet that I could have put together around 80% of the Eat Pray Love reviews you’ll find (and I would agree with most of them, by the way) before watching a single frame. These are, ipso facto, not movie reviews at all.
Liz Gilbert is a self-centered, shallow woman going through a mid-life crisis as only the real success stories of our self-centered, shallow society with nothing like a “real” problem to occupy their mind can.
Liz’ plate is overflowing with Herculian hardships, and she quite understandably finds herself in the depths of despair. She has a loving, if somewhat flaky, husband of eight years. Her career as a travel writer is going quite well, and finds her being paid to jet off to places like Bali with some regularity. She has a nice place in New York, and doesn’t seem remotely concerned with how she’s going to get the mortgage payment together. She’s also rather attractive.
It’s the sort of story that might have led to a person turning to drugs or alcohol, and might leave listeners thinking to themselves, “well, fair enough.”
Mustering up the tremendous courage it takes to walk out of a marriage (after all, being unhappy in your marriage isn’t the sort of thing you would let your spouse in on), Liz starts up a relationship with a younger man. She then decides to leave him as well, and spend a year visiting Italy, India, and Bali. You’d be inclined to call this a vacation, but the term implies that a book company hasn’t fronted you the money to cover your year as an advance on the book you’re going to write. There’s something inherent in a vacation that suggests you’re losing money on the deal.
In Italy, she eats and generally indulges herself. She’s shedding the weight of societal burdens, and she’s going to enjoy herself. If she balloons up and has to wear size 6 jeans (or 4, or whatever the hell), that’s just a risk she’s willing to take.
In India, she prays. Well, she meditates actually, and that only just barely. She struggles with not being able to focus her mind, running wild with inanities as it is, and ultimately learns a few of the bumper sticker truths of life that everyone else already knew anyway. She is carried away somehow on the modes of thought, without much care for where any mode ought best be aimed.
In Bali she hopes to learn some balance between the physical and the spiritual sides of life, and meets a man.
In the end, she discovers, as most everyone who has ever taken such a journey, that she could have accomplished the exact same thing without going anywhere. This is hardly surprising considering that what she has accomplished is difficult to distinguish from a middle-aged, wealthy ass of a man buying himself a new Lamborghini, going on a bender, and finding a new girlfriend. Just because your personal Lamborghini is a three-month stay in an Indian ashram doesn’t make it more interesting.
“I feel unfulfilled with my life, and am going to do something really stupid in the hopes that it will make life meaningful for me somehow,” doesn’t become an interesting tale just because you fill in the blanks in ways that are somehow socially acceptable; and avoiding being a person for a year isn’t how you become one.
But, this is all just a review of the book, and there must be some mistake if I am simply pointing out flaws I knew were there before they started filming.
The movie, quite honestly, is fairly brilliant, and every negative you will hear leveled at it is actually a triumph of director Ryan Murphy, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jennifer Salt. How can delivering the exact feel of a novel be a fault of a film? Apart from a slightly rushed view of the time in India, which doesn’t give a perfect impression of the effort, the film is quite simply a stunning, remarkable translation.
Julia Roberts is the wrong person for the role, and for exactly the reasons that many would probably think her perfect for it, which is to say that she really is perfect for it, it just isn’t a good thing. Beyond that, the film brings the book to life in a way that is not only rare, it is often quite impossible. We might suspect that the filming is ultimately an affair less difficult by way of the book’s pseudo-depth, but I am not completely inclined toward such a road.
It is not only beautifully shot, it is just the right sort of beauty, paired with just the right sort of ugly, and exposes to our eyes the exact nature of the life and experiences related to us in the book. That’s a tall order when the subject is the “feel” of Bali, it’s culture, and what it is like to find yourself thrust into it. Anyone can show you some footage of Julia Roberts in Bali and end up with something fairly watchable, but Murphy films Bali, and the results are impressive.
Let us look at it this way – If an author writes a book which is turned into a film, and their reaction to that film is, “Yes, that’s exactly it! Perfect!” it seems a curious exercise to begin criticizing the film as having a stupid, insufferable story. It is something uncomfortably akin to criticizing a documentary because you don’t want the facts it brings to light to be true.
When we walk away from the picture, we are meant to have some grasp of a struggle with a certain idea. Basically, that the way to get life, and love, to work right is to figure out how to become a fully realized, fully actualized, “complete,” person, and then find someone who fits with you. This is to misunderstand every piece of the equation, but it’s the story we’ve got.
The book is practically nonsensical. The movie is outstanding.