You’ve read the book, you’ve booked the holiday, you’ve bought the themed sarong, perfume and prayer beads; now, for devotees still hungry for spin-offs associated with Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling memoir, here’s Eat Pray Love the movie, a seemingly interminable romantic travelogue that feels as though it takes as long to watch as the year-long spiritual quest it depicts.
The quest, which actually lasts two hours 20 minutes on screen, begins in New York where Gilbert, played of course by Julia Roberts, is reeling from the failure of her marriage to the flaky Stephen (Billy Crudup). Her rebound-affair with studly young actor David (James Franco) has left her similarly unfulfilled, so she takes off from Manhattan to travel for a year, hoping to find herself.
The “Eat” stage of her journey takes her to a picture-postcard Rome, where a bunch of stereotypical locals (plus Tuva Novotny‘s blonde Scandinavian expat) teach her how to enjoy life. She gorges on pasta and pizza, and talks of acquiring “a muffin top” of tummy fat but still looks stick thin, notwithstanding the obligatory montage sequence showing her trying to squeeze said muffin top into a series of tight jeans.
Next stop, “Pray”, is an equally photogenic ashram in India, where she tries to get her head around meditation but seemingly learns more from her encounter with Richard Jenkins’ brusque, aphorism-spouting Texan (“do you always speak in bumper sticker”, she asks), who prods her a bit further along on her voyage of self-discovery.
Finally, “Love” appears after she lands in Bali to soak up the wisdom of a toothless medicine man. After what seems like an eternity of leisurely navel-gazing, she runs into Javier Bardem’s red-blooded but sensitive Brazilian, Felipe, whose arrival gives the movie a jolt of much needed energy.
It isn’t enough. Whatever merits Gilbert’s bestselling book has on the page, Liz’s search for spiritual enlightenment comes across on screen as self-absorption. And pampered self-absorption, at that. For all her inner struggles, Liz’s travels seem remarkably trouble-free – partly, I suspect, because in real life her trip was funded by a publisher’s generous advance, something the film neglects to reveal.
Roberts’ Liz does look up from her navel now and then. She even organises a whip round among her friends for a Balinese single mum whose income has plummeted in the aftermath of the Bali bombing, a rare moment of the real world impinging on the film’s cosy cosmos. Yet although Liz befriends the locals and samples their cuisine, the use of India and Bali as exotic backdrops to a rich Westerner’s quest for fulfilment still leaves a faintly nasty aftertaste.
Not that this appears to perturb director and co-writer Ryan Murphy (the man behind Nip/Tuck and Glee). With Roberts and her surroundings looking equally glowing, he seems perfectly content to coast along from one picturesque location to the next, stringing together a series of would-be epiphanies as if they were beads on one of the film’s tacky tie-in necklaces.
On general release from 24th September.