Review: Eat Pray Love

Julia Roberts looks for romance and redemption in this adaptation of the best-selling memoir.

Julia Roberts looks for romance and redemption in this adaptation of the best-selling memoir

Julia Roberts stars as Elizabeth Gilbert in the new film of Gilbert's soul-searching memoir, Eat Pray Love. ((Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures))

Love it or loathe it, there’s no denying Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat, Pray, Love is a pop-culture phenomenon.

In the four years since it was first published, Gilbert’s entertaining account of her painful divorce and ensuing spiritual journey has spent more than 155 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and sold an estimated four million copies in paperback. The book inspires such fervour that some devotees embark on pricey Bali theme tours in an effort to recreate Gilbert’s soul-searching experience.

Fans now have a movie version to savour, and the truly rabid will devour it like a bowl of fine Italian gelato. For the rest of us — the ones who weren’t completely mesmerized by Gilbert’s more self-indulgent passages — Eat Pray Love the movie is a tougher sell. Director Ryan Murphy has created a faithful adaptation — maybe too faithful. Seeing Gilbert’s journey play out on a 40-foot screen only magnifies the flaws lurking at the margins of the book.

As in Gilbert’s tome, the best moments arrive early. The first hour of Eat Pray Love feels refreshing — it dares to give screen time to an unconventional 30-something heroine. When we first meet Liz Gilbert (Julia Roberts), she’s in Bali, interviewing a guru who predicts big change in her future. Sure enough, within six months, she realizes that she probably doesn’t want kids and definitely doesn’t want to remain married to Steven (Billy Crudup). There are meltdowns, a rebound fling with David (James Franco) and then Liz sets off on a year-long trek to find herself, with planned stops in Italy, India and Indonesia.

In the movie’s opening and Italy ("Eat")  sections, Murphy and co-screenwriter Jennifer Salt wisely retain Gilbert’s witty tone, and things move along at a lively pace. There are the requisite glossy travelogue montages — close-ups of statues, fountains and bowls of pasta — that will make you want to leave the theatre and head straight for Rome. Nestled in among these breezy moments, though, are keen observations about the experience of travelling on your own, the horror of being asked repeatedly why you don’t have a husband and kids, and even an ode to the joy of learning to stop fretting over love handles and enjoy that extra slice of pizza.

The giddy momentum grinds to a halt, however, when Liz arrives at an ashram in India. This part of the heroine’s journey involves yoga, meditation and being in the moment, and while those interior activities were slow on the page, they’re narcolepsy-inducing on screen. This saggy mid-section could use more of Gilbert’s self-deprecating wisecracks to puncture all of the preachy Oprah moments on view. Without them, all that’s left is a mind-numbing array of smarmy shots of Liz in her diamond-encrusted bindi, flashing her beatific, vaguely condescending grin at the underdeveloped supporting characters.

While New Age spirituality is key to Gilbert’s book, there’s a saintliness to the screen Liz that feels new. By mid-movie, the heroine’s rougher edges have been sanded down; it’s tough to get too invested in her voyage of self-discovery. The literary Liz spent a lot of her travels obsessing about her failed relationships with men. Here, her exes are the needy ones, pining for her return. As they appear to the heroine in a series of random flashbacks and apparitions, the noble heroine soothes them with platitudes about how "ruin is the road to transformation." It’s a subtle shift, but it ends up making Liz less relatable.

Liz has fun with the earthy Felipe (Javier Bardem) in a scene from Eat Pray Love. ((Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures))

Some of this has to do with the casting of Julia Roberts, whose star persona has been known to hijack entire movies. She’s surprisingly well suited for the role of Liz, particularly in the early scenes, where her self-absorbed runaway bride pops a Xanax or bolts at the slightest hint of trouble. She’s still Julia (the braying laugh makes a few appearances), but she also has chops, and during her early heartbreak scenes, she makes you believe Liz would be desperate enough to turn to God for answers.

Roberts is so charismatic, the supporting players in Eat Pray Love never stand a chance (though Richard Jenkins and Viola Davis give it a good shot in their woefully underwritten roles). In the end, only Javier Bardem is alpha enough to square off with the leading lady, and he injects some much-needed energy in his late-movie appearance as an earthy, sensitive metrosexual named Felipe. He crackles, but his scenes arrive far too late — worn-out viewers will have one eye on the exit as he carries the lush Bali section toward its wholly conventional conclusion.

In a summer of the disappointing Sex and the City 2 and in which every other blockbuster from The A-Team to The Expendables is aimed at the testosterone set, it’s tempting to give Eat Pray Love a positive review simply because it exists. But where Gilbert’s memoir tapped into real anxieties and dreams that resonated with her predominantly female audience, the film ultimately rings false. It pays lip service to female empowerment, while using more calculated means — James Franco! Food porn! Exotic locales! — to lure hungry women viewers into multiplex seats.

Eat Pray Love is more fast food than feast, and by film’s end, I suspect Liz Gilbert won’t be the only woman declaring, "I want to go someplace where I can marvel at something, too."

Eat Pray Love opens Aug. 13.

Lee Ferguson writes about the arts for CBC News.