Review: Eat Pray Love

'Eat Pray Love'
Javier Bardem and Julia Roberts in 'Eat Pray Love'

The soft golden light of heaven shines down upon Julia Roberts. For 133 freakin’ minutes.

Amounting to nothing more than pious platitudes for people of privilege, Ryan Murphy’s Eat Pray Love is the kind of movie that gives spiritual anomie a bad name.

Many, many intelligent people have read Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir of a year spent recovering from a painful divorce and searching for spiritual balance in her life. On that basis, I’ll give the book, which I haven’t read, the benefit of the doubt and surmise that it is far more interesting and insightful than the pablum spooned out in the movie version.

Because what’s on screen is shallow and superficial, a tourist’s guide of foreign lands conducted by a sheltered American who’s never left home. Its view of spirituality is dainty and delicate, afraid to assert itself strongly for fear of offending someone … anyone.

Before we get to the titular “Eat Pray Love,” we must endure  “Pain Suffer Sacrifice,” as writer Elizabeth Gilbert (Roberts) decides to end her marriage to the indecisive Stephen (Billy Crudup).  Elizabeth is evidently a travel writer, book author, and a failed playwright; none of this is explained very clearly, however, but we surmise as much because, despite Stephen’s flitting from one career to another, the couple still lives in a plush Manhattan apartment. Someone was making some buck, or inherited a good deal of money.

When the marriage ends, Elizabeth immediately falls for David (James Franco), the good-looking actor who stars in Elizabeth’s failed play. He’s added tripe like “I heard dolphins clapping your name” to her play, but he’s ‘so charming, he can’t be ridiculed,’ in Elizabeth’s estimation. Theirs is a storybook romance, until it’s not, and many more tears are shed, and finally we’re ready for the three-legged journey of discovery.

Over the objections of her good friend Delia (Viola Davis), Elizabeth decides to spend a year visiting Italy, India, and Bali, to overcome the feelings of nothingness that she feels inside. Delia diagnoses her condition as a serious broken heart, but Elizabeth insists that it is much more, that she has no love inside to give to family or friends.

The way it comes across, she’s a selfish, self-indulgent brat experiencing a mid-life crisis.

Instead of buying a sports car and chasing after younger women, as a man in a similar situation would do, Elizabeth buys herself a year traveling the world and seeking salvation through food, spiritual devotion, and romance, though the latter is not her idea. Oh, no, that’s forced upon her in the person of Javier Bardem as the broken-hearted Brazilian Felipe.

They “meet cute” when he runs into her (literally) with his jeep in Bali, and theirs is a love written in the stars, if only poor, noble, lovable Elizabeth could learn to love again. First, of course, she must forgive herself and then maybe she can love herself and only then might she be able to experience true love.

The first two legs of Elizabeth’s journey are no less predictable and mired in stereotypes and caricatures. Upon arriving in Rome, she discovers that nuns eat ice cream — on the streeet! in public, no less! — and young lovers freely enjoy public displays of affection. Also, those Italians talk with their hands (?!) and love to do nothing.

The key, Elizabeth decides while eating pizza in Naples and encouraging her Swedish friend Sofi (Tuva Novotny) to do likewise, is to allow yourself to indulge in food and simply buy a larger size of jeans.

Later, at an ashram in India, Elizabeth resists the earnest bumper-sticker sayings  (an expression directly from the movie) of “Richard from Texas” (Richard Jenkins), a jovial truth-seeker who is only too happy to butt into her intended solitude and tell her how to live her life.

Director Murphy (Glee, Nip/Tuck, Popular) hasn’t the faintest idea how to establish a tone and never gets a handle on the material. You get the feeling that he treated each of the four sections of the movie as episodes of a TV series. I haven’t seen much of Glee, but both Nip/Tuck and Popular displayed a demented zest for finding the truth in quirky unpleasantness. That quality might have leavened the overbearing simplicity of the script, credited to Murphy and Jennifer Salt.

Whatever redeeming qualities might be found on the pages of Gilbert’s memoir, they are reduced in the movie version to an unconvincing, boring melodrama, drained of all heat and substance.