Eat Pray Love
Starring: Julia Roberts, Javier Bardem, Richard Jenkins, Viola Davis
Director: Ryan Murphy
Eat Pray Love begins with a monologue: over sweeping aerial shots of tropical forests and rice fields reminiscent of Apocalypse Now. Elizabeth Gilbert (Julia Roberts, right, with Hadi Subiyanto) tells of a psychologist friend assigned to counsel Cambodian refugees who fled their war-torn homes and arrived in the US. While her friend had prepared herself to relate to their suffering, Gilbert says, the boat people surprised her friend by only wanting to talk about their fleeting, ill-fated romances in refugee camps, rather than 'the worst of what humans can inflict on each other - genocide, rape, torture, starvation, the murder of their relatives before their eyes'.
To debate the authenticity of this story - one culled from the real-life Gilbert's book that provided the template for Ryan Murphy's film - is moot. What's telling about Eat Pray Love's opening salvo is the way it embodies the film's cringing shallowness. What is on paper a chronicle of an American writer's year-long globe-trotting journey to recover from a divorce and rediscover herself - or 'to change', as Roberts' Gilbert expounds in a pompous spiel before leaving New York - has become something even more vacuous than the pseudo-spiritual premise itself suggests.
The film begins with Gilbert suffering from multiple break-ups: first from her husband of seven years, Steven (Billy Crudup), and then the handsome yet superficial actor David (James Franco). Frayed by such catastrophes, Gilbert leaves home and travels to Italy, India and finally Indonesia in the hope of finding some equilibrium in her life.
What emerges, however, is Gilbert shaping other people's lives to her own image, as she brings about changes in her friends in Italy through some cod-philosophy and a Thanksgiving dinner in which everyone is forced to confess, psychiatry-style, to their inner feelings. She then makes an Indian girl feel better in, rather than refusing, her arranged marriage and finally offers some philanthropy to better the lives of an impoverished Balinese single-parent family. Despite some self doubt, Gilbert remains self-satisfied throughout, raising the question why the emotionally shattered and self-exiled Felipe (Javier Bardem) would fall for this person at the film's end.
The mediocre visualisation doesn't help either: while trying his best to bring the exotic non-American worlds to the screen, Murphy's mise-en-scene flounders with ill-advised soft lenses, bizarre use of melancholic musical motifs (over a staid, unimportant conversation in one instance) and abrupt crane shots that sell an Indian religious ritual short.
Perhaps Murphy knows what his film's selling point is: Roberts' fans will love to see their idol emoting and moping about in close-up, but Eat Pray Love has just too much navel-gazing to connect with the real world, however much eating, praying and loving is being compressed into the film.
Eat Pray Love opens today