It's easy to see why author Elizabeth Gilbert's memoir became an international phenomenon, even without help from Oprah. Everyone's looking for something — for answers, for their true and higher purpose — and Gilbert had the fortitude (and the wherewithal) to take off alone on a journey around the world to find herself after her divorce.
Having Julia Roberts star as Liz Gilbert in the film version of the best-seller, in theory, only makes it more appealing to an even wider audience. Roberts is radiant as ever, and director and co-writer Ryan Murphy's adaptation allows her to show off her full range with plenty of hardcore hanky moments. Not unlike the production numbers in Murphy's juggernaut TV series Glee, the search for meaning in Eat Pray Love is played with complete earnestness. But even cynics viewing this movie (or the vast majority of men) would find it hard not to be impressed by the lush visuals and, on a more substantive level, moved by some of the performances.
In the India section of the story, Richard Jenkins pretty much steals Eat Pray Love away from Roberts as the hippie Texan who serves as the voice of reason when Liz is feeling lonely and sorry for herself. She accuses him of talking in bumper stickers — which the script from Murphy and Jennifer Salt is frequently guilty of, as well — but he shakes things up and, more crucially, delivers one hell of a monologue in which he describes what led him to the ashram. Jenkins is such an intelligent, honest actor, he makes every moment feel authentic. He kind of makes you want to see a movie about his character instead.
But Eat Pray Love is the story of how Liz, a successful author, leaves her husband (Billy Crudup) when she realizes she no longer wants to be married to him, then leaves her much-younger boyfriend (James Franco) when she realizes she's losing her identity to him, then leaves New York entirely.
Her first stop is Italy, a place she's always wanted to visit, where she immediately falls in love with the people, the sights, the language. This would be the "eat" portion of our adventure, and the scene in which Liz takes on a plate of spaghetti plays like food porn. She lovingly twirls the noodles around her fork then lifts them into that perfect mouth, slurping and sucking the pasta in with delight. Warning: Do NOT see this movie hungry. The Thanksgiving turkey she shares for breakfast with the locals and ex-pats who become her makeshift family is a nice touch, but it also looks seriously delicious.
Next, she's off to pray at an ashram outside New Delhi, which she finds is harder than she'd expected — the whole process of keeping the mind still, and all. This is where Jenkins' character, Richard from Texas, comes into play. But Liz also befriends a 17-year-old girl on the verge of an arranged marriage — a lively, colorful affair with gorgeous, intricate costumes — and that relationship provides its own poignant moments.
Finally, she finds love in Bali, where she visits in the beginning of the movie and returns to learn from the elderly medicine man who prompted this whole journey. Since "love" is in the title, we know Liz will find it, so there's not a whole lot of suspense. Still, Roberts' scenes with Javier Bardem sparkle because ... well, he's Javier Bardem. And his character is just a real man: strong, confident, exciting, but also sweet and sensitive. He's comfortable about welling up as he says goodbye to his 19-year-old son who's visiting from Australia. Again, it's that whole female wish-fulfillment thing.
Beautiful as it is, the Bali section is overlong and it wraps up the film with the kind of romantic comedy cliches that, for the most part, were blissfully absent from the first two-thirds. Regardless of how you feel about the movie, though, Eat Pray Love will make you want to head out for wine and pasta with your girlfriends afterward. Any excuse will do, and this is a good one.
Eat Pray Love, a Columbia Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for brief strong language, some sexual references and male rear nudity.
Running time: 133 minutes
Rating: Three stars out of four