Based on the megahit memoir of the same name, Eat Pray Love stars Julia Roberts as Elizabeth Gilbert, a New York writer who leaves her dilettante husband (Billy Crudup) for an actor named David (James Franco). Smoldering David, a “yogi from Yonkers,” takes Liz back to his apartment, shows her a picture of his guru, then plants a wet one on her impossibly long, Julia Roberts neck. Pretty soon they are chanting together at David’s guru meet-up, and Liz’s yoga pants are strewn among the teacups and self-help books in his apartment. “You are in so much trouble, baby,” a stranger says to Liz at the Laundromat, where David has just folded her underwear. And she is.
The divorce drags on, the affair turn disastrous, and Gilbert decides to fly the proverbial coop, setting off for a year of travel—first to Rome, then to India (where she’ll meditate at the ashram of David’s guru), and finally to Bali, Indonesia to study with a ninth-generation medicine man she’d befriended on an earlier sojourn.
Director/screenwriter Ryan Murphy was graced with the budget to shoot all three segments on location, and he films each country to reflect Liz’s experience there. Nourishing Rome, where our heroine packs on the pounds gorging on hazelnut gelato and Margherita pizzas, is bathed in a warm, golden light. India—where Gilbert wrestles her mental demons via meditation, chants, and the tough-love coachings of a man she calls Richard from Texas (Richard Jenkins, the dead father from "Six Feet Under")—is all beauty and decay, sparkling jewel tones contrasted by endless rotting clutter. In Bali, a place for relaxing into love and tequila, the camera spreads out and offers up wide shot after wide shot of an easy-breezy, palm tree-lined paradise.
It’s not a particularly original approach—from a cinematographic point of view, Eat Pray Love resembles high-end postcards; it’s a trio of Travel and Leisure spreads. But they’re gorgeous Travel and Leisure spreads, and though we’ve seen these scenes of groping Roman teenagers cavorting in the piazza before, they can still charm, as can Julia Roberts, digging into a plate of pappardelle. Finally feeding herself. Likewise in Bali, we’re presented with open-aired villas, lapping waves, and tropical plants. Nothing new here (unless you count Javier Bardem playing an impossibly sensitive Brazilian love interest), but it’s still pretty.
It’s the India portion of the film where Eat Pray Love gets interesting. It’s also where Roberts does her best work as an actor—supported stunningly by Jenkins. Frustrated to find herself mooning over David while she should be striving for spiritual enlightenment, Liz admits to Richard that she misses her exboyfriend. To which he responds: “Then miss him! Send him love and light every time you think of him, and move on.”
Emerging from the mouth of a lesser actor, the line might come off new-agey and pat. But Jenkins offers it up with such loving exasperation, it feels true. And it becomes impossible not to root for these two flawed and struggling friends.
In the last scene in India just before Liz leaves for Bali, an elephant, its face and body painted for some ceremony, wanders up to her. Alarmed, Liz jumps to her feet and backs away from the animal. But as it approaches, she stretches out an arm towards its trunk. Fear or acceptance, shrinking away or reaching out: The scene is symbolically bloated, but Roberts wraps herself around it with subtle skill. At one point even her abdominal muscles—this one contracting backward, that one edging forward—are acting, and we feel along with Liz as her reluctance turns to rapture. Burdened with that considerable metaphorical baggage, Roberts carries the load spryly, and she owns both scene and audience.
And this is the magic of Eat Pray Love. Just when you think it can’t carry the full weight of its cliched, travel-the-world to-find-yourself perspective, the film tosses that heavy bundle over its shoulder gracefully, gorgeously. It’s a mainstream Hollywood movie that really loves people, for all their endless needs and impossible yearnings. It takes them seriously and treats them with compassion. And like an enormous tamed elephant that has been painted purple, that’s not something you see every day.