Julia Roberts is immensely likable in Eat Pray Love. She's as likable onscreen as Liz Gilbert, on whose memoir the movie is based, is on the page. Funny, charming, witty, self-deprecating, neurotic, brutally honest about her own shortcomings, fully aware that she might rightly be accused of whining at times. Anything less and the reader or viewer might come away thinking this Liz Gilbert character is a little spoiled and full of herself -- who gets to take a year off to find herself and, by the way, travel to Italy (to eat), India (to pray) and Indonesia (to fall in love)? (The love part was a surprise -- the eating and praying were premeditated.) Writer-director Ryan Murphy (who co-wrote the screenplay with Jennifer Salt) has managed to preserve much of Gilbert's charm and sense of humor, as well as her supple and straightforward language in the movie adaptation of Eat Pray Love.
There's something very retro about the navel-gazing wanderlust of this sensual, picturesque travelogue and spiritual quest. Eat Pray Love is, in its way, an Easy Rider or On the Road for the modern thirty-something woman (the Neil Young songs on the soundtrack add to the retro mood). Gilbert is in search of peace and enlightenment, but also liberation and autonomy, and what she hears, constantly, is not the mantra of feminist liberation, but of marital bliss and coupled contentment. She is interrogated about her single status (she's recently, painfully divorced) in Italy; she comforts a friend on the verge of an arranged marriage in India; she's told she needs to get laid in Bali. That she's in search of something other than love puts her at odds with the Hollywood tendency to place romantic love first and foremost among the things women desire and need to find fulfillment and feel whole. "I am woman, hear me roar" has been replaced by "Get thee to an altar, spinster!" Yet here's Liz Gilbert, smart, capable, single, and determined to figure out how to move past needing a husband or boyfriend to get right with herself.
The book was glorious in its descriptions of the sensual pleasures of the mouth in Italy -- the food and the language. Likewise the movie, which revels in the luscious indulgence of linguini and lingua. The book was wonderful in India, where Gilbert spends time at an ashram and encounters Richard from Texas (Richard Jenkins), who nicknames her "Groceries" and speaks in homespun aphorisms layered over deep spiritual wisdom. I thought the book petered out when Gilbert landed in Bali, and unexpectedly fell in love. The movie, on the other hand, is just getting warmed up when Javier Bardem arrives to light up the screen as Gilbert's charming Brazilian paramour Felipe, and Hadi Subiyanto steals scenes as the adorably toothless medicine man Ketut. What gets slighted in the movie (in favor of the Indonesian happy ending) is the ashram interlude, which was the soul of the book and gave the fullest exploration of Gilbert's spiritual quest, her soul-searching, and her inner struggle to love (herself, her god, her world) without being the object of love. I could have done with a whole lot more of Richard from Texas too -- reading the book, I always pictured Richard as M.C. Gainey, but Jenkins totally owns the part with his warm, funny, natural performance.
Eat Pray Love is not an entirely unconventional movie adaptation -- it's a little more superficial than the book, and a little less insightful (in a nutshell, a little light on the "pray"). But it's the exceptional movie that can do enlightenment and capture numinous, divine experience as well as movies can do love and food and the sacred love of food. This is a minor complaint, because the movie is, all things considered, warm, genial, and delicious, a nicely balanced blend of the serious and the sensuous, with beautiful scenery and unconventionally beautiful people.