Review: 'Eat Pray Love'

Twenty years after playing the quintessential prostitute with a heart of gold, Julia Roberts is back playing a pretty woman in distress.

Make no mistake: Like the 1990 hit that turned Roberts into one of Hollywood's biggest stars, there's a knight in shining armor at the end of "Eat Pray Love," a movie based on Elizabeth Gilbert's 2006 best-selling memoir, but in this film, Roberts' character saves herself.

Self-discovery and empowerment are at the heart of the book's appeal to millions of ambitious yet unfulfilled women who, like Gilbert, are miserable lying in the bed (or marriage or career) they so consciously spent the first half of adulthood making. ("Hadn't I wanted this?" Roberts-turned-Gilbert asks her miserable self in the beginning of the film as she walks through the house she bought with her husband.)

To sort it all out, the thirtysomething writer decides to embark on what is essentially a yearlong vacation to Italy, India and Bali. (Taking such an expensive trip and unrealistic break from reality is a fantasy out of reach for the millions of women who will likely pack into theaters this weekend to watch the movie, but what's a modern-day fairy tale without some suspension of belief?)

Gilbert has lost her appetite for life, so we first watch her eat her way through Italy, where the food scenes might as well be sex scenes.

Just as the "Sex and the City" series and films gave us free-spirited female characters giving themselves permission to be as sexually assertive as men, Gilbert's unabashed enjoyment of food encourages women to stop feeling guilty about eating.

As we watch her dust delicate shavings of Parmesan over a heaping plate of pasta, an operatic voice in the background crescendoes to hit the high notes at an orgasmic pace. You can almost hear the audience moaning along with the character on screen.

There's a fair bit of cheese sprinkled throughout the entire film, thanks to director and screenwriter Ryan Murphy, whose playfulness with contrived conventions that has given him a great deal of success on the small screen ("Glee," "Nip/Tuck") doesn't work quite as well in a full-length feature.

As a writer, Gilbert is a much more powerful storyteller than Murphy, and the depth of emotion and soul-searching in the book doesn't quite translate into the almost two-and-a-half hour film. Murphy relies a bit too heavily on dialogue and cinematic tricks (the halo lighting used to introduce Gilbert's rebound boyfriend David, played James Franco, is particularly laughable), but he honors Gilbert's gifted voice by keeping many of the humorous and poignant observations found in the book.

Austinites will be happy to see that Richard from Texas, based on the real-life Richard Vogt of Austin, who died in March, gets as much screen time as the other male leads to share his yogic wisdom with a still broken-hearted and guilt-riddled Gilbert, who travels to India to live at an ashram after indulging in the gustatory pleasures of Italy.

How skeptical American audiences have embraced the Eastern spiritual message of "Eat Pray Love" represents a true cultural shift of our traditionally Christian, God-fearing country. When, as Gilbert puts it, "God dwells with me, as me," forgiveness isn't something you ask for from someone else and church isn't a place you attend.

It's a radical message to middle Americans who record Dr. Phil on their DVRs every weekday.

The language once reserved for "The Prophet"-reading hippies has now gone mainstream. Send light and love to your adversaries, Richard from Texas advises us as much as Gilbert. Stop trying so hard. Surrender. "Eventually, everything goes away."

Once Gilbert finds her inner peace and learns how to be alone, she's rewarded with Javier Bardem, whose portrayal of Felipe - the Brazilian man whom Gilbert meets on the last leg of her adventure in Bali and eventually marries in real life - is one of the most convincing characters in the film. (The tears he sheds when bidding farewell to his son who is visiting from college are the most believable in the entire movie.)

He's as heartbroken as she is, but he always has the right thing to say. "You don't need a man. You need a champion," he tells her. (This is clearly a concept that American women need to hear. The audience at a screening earlier this week nearly erupted in applause when Bardem delivered this line.)

Falling in love wasn't part of Gilbert's plan, but if "Eat Pray Love" teaches us anything, it's that life isn't something you plan, no matter how much clarity you find doing all that yoga and meditation.

It's a nice message, but the picturesque ending is just a little too sweet to swallow. Back in India, Richard from Texas had told Gilbert that "if you want to get to the castle, you have to swim the moat."

If only every fairy tale ended with a handsome Felipe waiting on the other side.

Eat Pray Love

Our Grade: B

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 140 minutes

MPAA rating: PG-13

Release Date: Aug 13, 2010