Here’s a word I never thought I would use about Ryan Murphy: safe. The guy behind the twisted pleasures of the television series “Nip/Tuck” and “Glee” has made sensationally entertaining comedy-dramas about ambition, competition, beauty, and self-expression. He has specialized in creating larger-than-life but still very relatable characters and making us care about them. He has taken big risks and made them work. And now, as co-writer and director of a big-budget movie based on an international best-seller and Oprah-certified sensation, he has decided to play it safe. Instead of a story of anguish and struggle and triumph through pain and work, he has made “Eat Pray Love” into an upbeat tale of self-actualization. This is a movie about a self-obsessed woman who seems to learn that the wisdom of the ancients is that she should be even more self-obsessed. Murphy has taken what was messy and heartfelt and made it neat and cute. And dull. And long.
A movie called “Eat Pray Love” about a woman’s spiritual journey of healing through Italy, India, and Bali should get us started on that journey by the time the opening credits have ended. Instead, we get a half hour of unnecessary and distracting backstory that makes our heroine so self-absorbed and annoying that only the unstoppable appeal of Julia Roberts keeps us from reaching for the remote and then remembering this isn’t the Lifetime Movie Channel.
Roberts plays Elizabeth Gilbert, a writer (in the movie, a playwright, in real life, a journalist), and a woman who has so little sense of who she is and what she wants that she loses herself in relationships and then panics and leaps into another passionate romance. She thinks that makes her feel more alive but in reality it makes her feel — less of everything. She leaves her husband (Billy Crudup) even though he wants to stay married. And then she leaves the boyfriend she found as her marriage was ending (James Franco). And then, finally, she leaves the country.
She begins in Italy, where she studies the language and has raptures over the food. Then she goes to India, for a spiritual retreat at an ashram. And then she goes to Bali, where a shaman once told her that she would have two marriages, one long and one short, that she would lose all of her money, and that she should come back to help him learn English and learn from him about his secrets.
But all of this relies on our being on her side and we have lost some of our enthusiasm for her journey during that first half hour. It would have made much more sense to start with the trip and then give us brief illuminating flashbacks as necessary, as the book did. Instead, incidents that are intended to make us sympathetic backfire, making her come across as selfish, superficial, and disloyal. The flashbacks we do get only muddle things more. We’re asked to believe that her new relationships are healthier than the old ones, but none of them are especially credible or appealing.
Even Roberts’ dazzling smile can’t prevent Gilbert from coming across as an insensitive American dilettante, expecting everything to happen when and where she wants it. When the shaman tells her she must hand copy his books, the woman who is supposed to thoroughly understand meditation practice does not realize that the experience of putting in that work is what he wants her to do; she thinks it is fine to run off to the local photocopier. She also thinks it is fine to abandon her commitment to meet with him every day for a two-week frolic. The entire notion of discipline and mindfulness and responsibility never seems to come through to her. Events from the book occur but without any sense of the meaning or context. One of the incidents is unforgivably distorted to make what was in real life a learning experience for Gilbert about the limits of understanding and control into yet another American-saves-the-day story.
And it lurches from safe to soporific with over-used and predictable music choices. How did the man who created a mash-up for “Glee” of “Smile” songs from Charlie Chaplin and Lily Allen think that the moment our heroine starts to feel comfortable on her own should be underscored with the all-but-inevitable “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” from Sly and the Family Stone? And “Heart of Gold,” really? Really? Kool and the Gang and “Celebration?” This is greeting card commercial stuff. And then something that makes no sense at all. You’re in Italy, you want to play some opera, I get it. But why a German opera? You’re in Italy!
Elizabeth (the character) accuses one of the characters of speaking in bumper stickers but that is pretty much what this whole movie is, completely undermining the notion of the real work involved in what she is attempting. The emphasis on forgiving oneself instead of repairing the damage is cringe-inducing. The book allowed Gilbert (the author) to come to grips with failure and ambiguity, but the movie resorts to easy answers and convenient resolutions. At the risk of sounding like a bumper sticker myself, convenient resolutions on screen are inconvenient and unsatisfying for the audience because they don’t ring true.