Eat, Pray, Love is a most vexing film. It has some wonderfully talented people doing good work in telling a story unworthy of their effort. I can imagine women calling me sexist and other similar (mostly worse) names in different volumes by, if not before, the end of this review. Yes, I am a man. But that is not why I dislike this film. Eat, Pray, Love has breath-taking visuals, very impressive acting and some solid direction. In terms of craft, its only sin is its excessive length, which would be easily forgivable but for its protagonist. I have not read the book or ever met Liz Gilbert. However, if she is anything like the character in the film, I will do everything within my power to ensure it stays that way. Despite all the merits of the film, it is positively agonising to spend 134 minutes with a character who is so selfish, conceited, privileged, elitist and self-absorbed that all you want to do is strangle her. The story is so problematic in terms of characters and themes, it can be likened to Twilight, but for women over 30.
Eat, Pray, Love is the story of Elizabeth Gilbert (Julia Roberts). One minute she is a successful New York writer considering motherhood and the next minute, she is convinced she’s in an unhappy marriage, gets a divorce from a loving but indecisive husband (Billy Crudup), has a fling with the yoga doing stage actor (James Franco) and then dumps him to spend a year in Italy, India and Bali. In Italy, she discovers the joy of food, friendship and the need to enjoy the good things. In India, she learns to forgive herself. Finally, in Bali, she learns to fall in love again, both with herself and another.
This would be a good story, maybe even a great one. But when you look at Elizabeth Gilbert (the character, not the person), it is hard to feel anything for her. You don’t feel sorry for her when she gets a divorce. And you certainly don’t feel happy for her in the end either. Why? Because there is no change; no transformation. Unlike Julie and Julia, where cooking saved two women and helped them find meaning in their life, travel does nothing like that for Miss Gilbert. She is the same self-absorbed person she was, it’s just that she has conveniently learned to forgive herself for it. She forgives herself for walking out on the people who made the mistake of loving her; for only thinking about herself. She accepts herself for who she is and moves on.
My problem with such a "way of life" is this: Sure, we are all flawed people. However, what makes us human is that we make an effort to overcome these flaws. In the meantime, it is important to love yourself, without a doubt. But in Gilbert’s story, you find loving yourself as an excuse, a justification you give yourself for who you are and remaining that way. It’s just something that’ll allow you to sleep at night. And the worst part is, the story shamelessly uses some hokey version of Eastern philosophy to add to her “revelations” an artificial sense of profundity. How exactly does this philosophy help her reach such conclusions is never clearly explained. It’s shallow and superfluous and consequently, so is the film. And what a travesty that is!
That’s because visually, this film is dazzling. It showcases all the three places beautifully on camera. Murphy works with his editor to create the right atmosphere in each of the countries. He shows great sensitivity and taste in those moments. Together, they allow you to almost actually experience the elegance of Italy, the culture of India and the serenity of Bali. Murphy also knows how to tell a story and creates several poignant moments in the film to convey the themes and emotions. It’s just the wrong story to tell.
Coming to the acting, Julia Roberts was my first crush as a teenager. I fell head over heels in love with her in films like Notting Hill, Pretty Woman, Stepmom and My Best Friend’s Wedding. Here, she is as always, otherworldly, with her beaming smile and her boundless charm. She plays her role well; but it’s the role that’s the problem. The men in this film are treated as little more than trifling eye-candy with no little or no development. Considering the talent involved (all three men have some fantastic films in their resume), that is a disappointment. The only man with a real character is Richard Jenkins who plays a Texan in India struggling to forgive himself for his past. He gives a memorable performance in the film.
Ultimately, Eat, Pray, Love is a problematic film. It is not a romance, unless you consider a relationship with yourself romantic. It is not a comedy because there are some serious, weighty themes there. As a travel film, it is one of the most pointless travelogues of all time, howsoever elegant. It has a loathsome protagonist, one who is oblivious to the people she hurts on her quest for meaning. I would much rather have seen a film about Sofie (Tuva Novotny), Gilbert's best friend in Rome. Don’t get me wrong. It will certainly have its legions of female supporters. I can imagine lots of smiles with glistening tears, tissue papers and everything. But beyond that, I think that the film is doing little more than encouraging women to be like the stereotypical man: selfish, conceited, and insensitive. As a feminist, I find that insulting and dangerous in its counter-productivity. In an age when men are being criticised for these things, this film advocates that women should be the exact same way. That’s just sad. Because woman, you are better than that!