In 2005, 30-something New York writer Elizabeth “Liz” Gilbert published her travel memoir, Eat Pray Love (EPL). It sold more than eight million copies worldwide, spent more than 150 weeks on the bestseller list, and made Liz $10 million richer. Asheville readers already knew Gilbert as the author of The Last American Man (2002), the story of Appalachian woodsman Eustace Conroy.
EPL the movie, directed by Ryan Murphy (TV’s Glee and Nip/Tuck), is a faithful rendition of the book, a fact that will please its devoted fans, and irritate those who wanted to hurl it across the room. There are no villains, except the conflicts inside Gilbert’s psyche, so EPL is not exciting, but it’s quite watchable. Familiarity breeds enjoyability and everyone loves a real-life fairy-tale ending.
Julia Roberts is the perfect choice to play Elizabeth Gilbert, capturing the writer’s beauty, angst, humor and sociability. Roberts’ slightest gesture tells the whole scene: her look of sublime satisfaction after eating a full plate of pasta by herself, for example, or her hilarious frustration after trying repeatedly to meditate without falling asleep.
Yes, EPL is a movie aimed at women, though why that should vilify it among critics is beyond me. Stories of men going through their mid-life crises are perfectly acceptable film fodder but women’s journeys to find themselves are ghettoized as “chick flicks.” The main barb about both the book and the film is that they are “self-absorbed.” Of course they are self-absorbed! They are about a writer by herself, on a journey of self-discovery.
After five years of marriage to Stephen (Billy Crudup), Liz wants out. She ends up giving her ex-husband everything just to escape. Meanwhile she’s involved in a heart-breaking affair with David (James Franco), a young actor. Her life is a mess. To her credit, she realizes that what she has to do is not blame anyone else, change herself. Her agent Delia (Viola Davis) gets her a publisher’s advance to pay for a year’s travel so Liz can find herself.
“I once had an appetite,” Liz complains. So she goes to Italy and forgets being on a diet. Warning: this sequence will trigger every craving you ever had for carbohydrates. She makes new friends who are determined to convince her to abandon her American compulsion to constantly be doing something. The Italian way is much more life-affirming—eat good food and then do nothing.
In India, Liz hopes to come closer to God. In an Ashram of the female guru her ex-lover had introduced her to, she follows all the rules. She can’t quiet her chattering “monkey mind,” however, and never does learn to meditate properly. There she meets Richard, a do-gooder from Texas (Richard Jenkins). He takes Liz under his wing with his stream of aphorisms, such as “ruin is the road to transformation.” Liz comes to accept that “God dwells within me, as me.”
Lastly, Liz goes to Bali, to visit again the charming toothless medicine man Kitut Liyer (Hadi Subiyanto), who had predicted her future in the film’s opening scene. “One short marriage,” he had told her by reading her palm, “and one long one.” She’s riding her bicycle down a path near a bridge, when a speeding Jeep knocks her down. The driver is Felipe (Javier Bardem), a Brazilian importer, living in Bali, who is also recovering from a bitter divorce.
Liz has brought balance into her life by learning to appreciate food and to pray — can she dare rock her cosmic boat by falling in love again?