Friday, August 13, 2010
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.
“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.
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.
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”