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Review: ‘Eat, Pray, Love’

More Like Eat, Pray, Gag

Above: Julia Roberts engaging in the first part of "Eat, Pray, Love"

Sit. Stay. Beg. Female audiences at the preview screening of “Eat, Pray, Love” (opening August 13 throughout San Diego) reacted like Pavlov’s dogs, salivating in eager anticipation of everything Julia Roberts did.

At the advance screening the 90 percent female crowd reacted with “oohs” and “aahs,” and applause to Julia Roberts’ narcissistic journey of self-discovery. Although not as offensive as “Sex and the City 2,” “Eat Pray Love” is the kind of chick flick that makes me want to run for the exits. But since I was reviewing it, I stayed till the bitter end.

“Eat, Pray, Love” is based on Elizabeth Gilbert’s best selling book. Roberts plays Liz Gilbert, a woman who wakes up one night, prays to God for a sign, and abruptly asks her husband of seven years for a divorce. Nothing really seems to be wrong; she just can’t be married. She offers him all her money in order to convince him to accept the divorce. Then she heads out for a yearlong journey beginning in Italy, moving to India, and ending in Bali. Although she seems to have lost all her money she never once worries about how to pay for her trip, accommodations, or food. Gee that’s nice. It’s hard to become engaged with Roberts’ Liz. She a beautiful woman who apparently wants for nothing and has the ability to simply walk away – without a care in the world or any responsibilities -- from everything in order to find herself. But she’s so wrapped up in herself and so superficial in her quest that it's hard to really care.

Julia Roberts trying to be adorable on her superficial quest for self-discovery in "Eat, Pray, Love"

Columbia Pictures

Above: Julia Roberts trying to be adorable on her superficial quest for self-discovery in "Eat, Pray, Love"

“Eat, Pray, Love” makes an interesting companion piece to “I am Love,” starring Tilda Swinton. Both films deal with women who feel trapped in their lives and who embark on a sensual journey of self-discovery in which food, love, and sex provide a gateway to freedom and a new life. But the two films couldn’t be more different in tone, artistry, and impact. The differences are perfectly summed up in two pivotal eating scenes. In “Eat, Pray, Love” Roberts indulges in a plate of spaghetti that’s supposed to awaken her to a new love for life. The food is shot with all the artistry of a Chef Boyardee TV commercial – close up of plate, fork twirls noodles, Roberts slurps in the noodles and sauce, and then smiles like a satisfied customer in the hopes you’ll buy the product. By contrast, the transcendent food scene in “I am Love” involves a prawn dish that turns into sensuous food porn. As Tilda Swinton takes a bit of the sumptuous food the whole world fades into the background and we sense how the experience has truly transformed her. The “Eat Pray Love” scene is all about external surfaces made to look pretty whereas “I am Love” uses all the tactile elements of its scene to reveal an intimate point of view of its character as she is in the midst of change. But then “I am Love” is the creation of an artist. “Eat, Pray, Love” is simply a studio product designed to cash in on a popular book.

I will say that “Eat, Pray, Love” was at least pretty to look at when Liz travels to Italy. While in Italy the film at least has a bit of “Under the Tuscan Sun’s” travelogue feel with attractive scenery and pretty food. But when the film moves to India the film loses almost all interest in food and scenery. I guess the journey is meant to be moving more inward so we get a lot more close ups of Roberts.

Julia Roberts in "Eat, Pray, Love"

Columbia Pictures

Above: Julia Roberts in "Eat, Pray, Love"

But in India, the film feels pulled in two directions as it hits the cliché of an American coming to India on a spiritual journey of self-discovery. It’s hard to take Liz’ stay at an ashram seriously when the whole thing seems like a sham. She’s made to wash floors to get in touch with her spirituality but why the heck isn’t she out there helping real people in need. And she quickly drops a vow of silence so she can be a party hostess for the ashram and keep the paying clients happy. The ashram seems so obviously a business meant to scam women like Liz that it’s difficult to buy into any of the spirituality – even when an actor like Richard Jenkins works very hard to make it all appear genuine.

At the ashram, the film also makes its most offensive move. A young girl Liz meets explains that her parents are forcing her into an arranged marriage. Rather than be outraged by this outdated practice, Liz essentially says, “Buck up, it’ll be okay.” She looks at the photo of the intended young man and says he looks sweet and it will probably all be okay. Now this is coming from a woman who just walked away from two relationships for no clear reasons, a woman who is so selfish that she places her needs over others. Do you think she would be happy with an arranged marriage? Hell no. She’d be pissed off and complaining like crazy. So to see her react with such nonchalance to this young woman’s dilemma only proves how self-absorbed and dense Liz is. So if Liz’ journey is meant to serve up some feminist triumph, it fails miserably because its focus is so narrow and it’s unwilling to consider the problems of other women.

Julia Roberts with Javier Bardem in "Eat, Pray, Love"

Columbia Pictures

Above: Julia Roberts with Javier Bardem in "Eat, Pray, Love"

The film also throws a Prince Charming in Liz’ path in the shape of Javier Bardem. He’s sexy, sensitive, and romantic. He’s presented as near perfect yet she still takes a ridiculously long time to realize her good fortune. The problem with this though, is that it makes the film’s ultimate message be that Liz does need a man to complete her. So it seems to go counter to what she is trying to prove, which is that she is complete on her own and all the people who keep telling her that she needs a man are wrong. But since the film is a chick flick with romance foremost on its mind, it needs to end in a romantic embrace. This isn’t the 70s after all. So I would be a fool to expect Roberts to walk off on her own like Ellen Burstyn did in “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” or Jill Clayburgh did in “An Unmarried Woman.” Those 70s films had a grit and edge to them that glossy Hollywood chick flicks like “Eat, Pray, Love” simply don’t possess.

As for Roberts... well she is simply Hollywood celebrity Julia Roberts. Not for a moment did I believe she was this character Liz. When a scene got tough, she would just smile or giggle and all would be well as if the mere sight of Roberts' big white teeth would dazzle and blind us to the flaws of the film. (BTW Can her mouth possibly get any bigger?) When Liz finally discovers a cause to champion outside of herself, it just seemed like Julia Roberts, Hollywood star promoting a cause. Again this brings me back to "I am Love" in which Tilda Swinton is so totally consumed by her character that the actress completely disappears inside the role.

“Eat, Pray, Love” (rated PG-13 on appeal for brief strong language, some sexual references and male rear nudity) was more like eat, pray for it to end, gag. Sample from its menu at your own risk.

Companion viewing: “I am Love,” “Under the Tuscan Sun,” “An Unmarried Woman,” “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”

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Avatar for user 'cbundy55'

cbundy55 | August 13, 2010 at 10:35 a.m. ― 6 years, 7 months ago

...but really, did you like the movie or not? :o)

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Avatar for user 'Beth Accomando'

Beth Accomando, KPBS Staff | August 13, 2010 at 10:47 a.m. ― 6 years, 7 months ago

I know I did dance around my opinion a bit and tried to be delicate about how I felt so as to not hurt anyone's feelings. So I apologize for not being more direct.

Thanks. ;)

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Avatar for user 'randolphslinky'

randolphslinky | August 13, 2010 at 12:47 p.m. ― 6 years, 7 months ago

Just say the name Julia Roberts and immediately "Chick Flick" pops in to my brain and I look to see what else is playing. Can't help it.

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Avatar for user 'jimiangst'

jimiangst | August 18, 2010 at 1:56 a.m. ― 6 years, 7 months ago

Hi Beth:

I am a little late getting a comment posted here on this review.

At this point, the only way I could sit through this movie would be if someone decided to duct tape me to a theater seat against my will. I appreciate the fact that you are here to take on this obligatory task so people like myself can get a informed analysis of what this type of film might offer - if anything.

But then again, I need to be honest and state that I am more of an Ang Lee, Eat Drink Man Woman type of film buff then a Eat, Pray, Love movie type. From what I have heard and seen regarding this movie so far – your comment "Eat, Pray, Gag" is accurate.

One positive aspect of the film: at least it appears that they served bread sticks with lunch, and that should appeal to the Olive Garden crowd…

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Avatar for user 'Beth Accomando'

Beth Accomando, KPBS Staff | August 18, 2010 at 3:03 p.m. ― 6 years, 7 months ago

Hide all the duct tape then. And go see Cairo Time or I am Love.

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Avatar for user 'kimguy'

kimguy | August 21, 2010 at 12:51 p.m. ― 6 years, 7 months ago

I just came back from the movie...and i walked out on the movie. I was so disappointed. I read the book and absolutely loved it. There was NO character development. Liz was portrayed as just a shell, a shallow character that no one could relate to. The reason she went on this journey was because of a severe depression that had stripped her mentally, spiritually and emotionally. This was never shown. It was "oh, I want a divorce, and oh, i don't like my boyfriend, so...I think I'll take a year long skip across the world. Extremely disappointing. I wish this movie had never been made. It is a disgrace to Liz Gilbert's work.

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Avatar for user 'Beth Accomando'

Beth Accomando, KPBS Staff | August 21, 2010 at 1:07 p.m. ― 6 years, 7 months ago

I hope you got a refund.

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Avatar for user 'SMROhio'

SMROhio | August 24, 2010 at 8:49 a.m. ― 6 years, 7 months ago

Beth, I have to say that I am slightly appalled at your review here. As a film reviewer, I would expect a more neutral approach rather than just spewing hatred for a project that is SUPPOSED to be as narcissistic as it is (and as you seemingly mock).

First, she is an author, and she gets an advance deal on the book she is going to write about the journey she takes. That's how she lives/eats/doesn't worry about finances.
Second, this isn't "every woman's journey," nor is it supposed to be. It is the story of one woman and her struggle to step out of the complacent life she knows wasn't meant for her.
Third, as an individual on her own journey, she wasn't taking a year to help anyone else. It was a year to focus on her own life and soul. That's why she didn't tell the young girl that she shouldn't have a pre-arranged marriage, and why she tried very hard to not fall in love with the Javier Bardem of the book (the man who she, Liz Gilbert, ultimately married).

I'm not championing the movie at all. It was decent, but not great. One problem that I agree with is that it was difficult to see the mega-star Julia Roberts playing this character. I couldn't see it when reading the book, and I still don't see it.
I'm also not championing the book at all. It was annoying and self-absorbed.

My point is that... well, the movie IS pretty close to the book. It's SUPPOSED to be annoying and self-absorbed and narcissistic. That's how everyone lives their lives (especially single people without spouse or children attachments). There is no one greater than "I," and you have to take care of yourself first. You must love yourself before you can love somebody else.

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Avatar for user 'Beth Accomando'

Beth Accomando, KPBS Staff | August 24, 2010 at 11:56 a.m. ― 6 years, 7 months ago

The point of being a film critic is that you are not neutral. The whole point is to have an opinion. If I was neutral and objective then this would be a news story and you would simply get a synopsis of the plot and facts about the production.

Just because a film sets out to be self-absorbed and narcissistic and then succeeds is no reason to applaud it. Nor is the fact that it may be close to the book. A film has to exist on its own and this film simply didn't work for me. I was irritated by Roberts' character and was not engaged in her struggles because the film made her so superficial. And even if she is taking a year to focus on herself, her inability to show any compassion for the young Indian girl is precisely the reason why I feel no need to show her any compassion.

I confess this is not a genre of films that I have an affinity for but there are two far superior examples in theaters now that deal with similar themes but in vastly different and artistically more satisfying ways: I am Love and Cairo Time.

Thanks for the thoughtful comments. Let me know if you happen to see either of the other films I suggested. I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts.

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Avatar for user 'jana'

jana | August 24, 2010 at 8:41 p.m. ― 6 years, 7 months ago

i read the book. with that said, may i please say, working in public radio, you do not get paid nearly enough to see this movie.

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Avatar for user 'Beth Accomando'

Beth Accomando, KPBS Staff | August 24, 2010 at 9:21 p.m. ― 6 years, 7 months ago

Thank you.

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Avatar for user 'SMROhio'

SMROhio | August 26, 2010 at 2:27 p.m. ― 6 years, 7 months ago

Apologies for saying "neutral" without an explanation. What I meant was that it seemed, from my perspective, that you went in expecting not to like it, and were fine critiquing any flaw that may have been even remotely present. However, once you admitted to not particularly a fan of the genre, I could see myself in the same position having to review Sci-Fi.
I actually saw this a second time yesterday, hoping to enjoy "Love" more than the first go around. It didn't happen.
However, I tried focusing on the Indian girl in the ashram, to see your perspective and I'm still at a loss. Liz finally finds her ability to pray and communicate with god when it isn't about herself anymore (she dedicates her daily prayer to the girl). And the last scene with the girl is her and Liz holding hands in silence. Which was more poetic, in my eyes, than if a Western woman visiting India tried to force her Western belief system on a child. In the end of the film, Liz speaks of how life is a journey and when you treat everyone you meet as a teacher, then things have a way of working out- something perhaps directed toward the girl from the ashram as well. (Gilberts' words are more poetic than mine, forgive me.)
I guess I just don't understand certain criticisms you had. Such as stating that certain scenes in the section titled "Eat" were essentially Chef Boyardee commercials. I perhaps take the section literally, at face value, and expect her to simply marvel at food and language.
I will check out the movies you suggested, though. I love this theme in film, and look forward to re-reading this after seeing them.

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