Whether picking it up because of the golden “O”prah seal while browsing the best sellers shelf or finally succumbing to a friend’s relentless insistence that this book be read, most women began Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat Pray Love without the expectation of a life-changing experience. Because, really, didn’t we all doubt Oprah after that Tony Morrison phase, and haven’t we learned that the friend gushes too easily about too many mediocre things? (i.e. Spanx, Dancing With the Stars, that new tapas bar.)
But when we found ourselves absolutely emotionally “in” by Chapter 2 and Googling possible ashrams to visit by book’s end, it was an unexpected epiphany — and an army of 5 million soul-searching women was born.
Committed to enlightenment, but bound by children and bank accounts to forgo a copycat pilgrimage, I counted down the months until I could freebase my fix of self-reflection in movie form. But as any junkie knows, it’s damn near impossible to recreate that elusive first high.
Ryan Murphy (Glee), God bless him, did what he could do. He cast the high-priestess of chick flicks, Julia Roberts, as our Liz Gilbert and placed her amongst the luscious landscapes of Italy, India, and Indonesia. While the actual location shooting delivers the sights and sounds that book readers wanted to experience – mounds of pasta with slow-mo Parmesan falling like snow, meditation chants among bejeweled Indian brides, turquoise ocean swims with gorgeous Felipe (Javier Bardem) – we quickly realize that the journey we most enjoyed was internal.
Gone is the messy conflict at the book’s opening, which reveals Liz on the verge of nervous breakdown before leaving her marriage and the country for a year of self discovery via eating in Italy, praying in India and loving in Bali. Instead we see a seemingly average marriage with husband Stephen, played by a sweetly tortured Billy Crudup in the strongest supporting performance, whom she abandons before immediately falling into the arms of David (James Franco…who is so hot that women were audibly gasping in his first moments on screen). Without the benefit of sitting inside Liz’s angst-ridden brain, her abrupt departure from NYC and pouty breakup with David just makes her seem like a petulant child.
Gone, too, is the sensuality of everyday life in Rome, which was practically dripping off Gilbert’s pages. Instead we see Liz eating with friends, smiling with friends, walking with friends, shopping with friends, drinking with friends and eating with friends some more. India proves especially tricky for the movie as it attempts to capture the spirituality experienced through months and months and months of meditation. Luckily for Liz, and the still hopeful audience, entertainment comes in the form of bumper sticker advice from Richard from Texas (Richard Jenkins) whose painful description of his “oceans of regret” is one of the few moments where we feel an actual connection to a character’s internal anguish.
Finally, we get to Bali and again fail to make a soulful connection to Liz’s relationship with a toothless medicine man and a divorced single mother/Whole Foods healer. Even the jaw-dropping beauty of Indonesia, dappled with warm light and color by cinematographer Robert Richardson (Inglorious Bastards, Kill Bill), doesn’t make up for the finale of love story cliches between Liz and Felipe, complete with the desperate search to reconnect after a break up and a literal ride into the sunset.
Without the use of constant protagonist narration, Ryan Murphy’s options for recreating Liz’s relatable search for God are limited. Legions of women will still show up for this movie because…ummm hello…it’s Julia Roberts in the book that launched our post-college search for meaning (and a thousand divorces). But the depth of emotion can’t be reached on the thin screen, and most devotees will leave the theater happy to have given it a look … but still searching.