Saturday, August 14, 2010

Spiritual consumption: the hybrid aesthetics of Eat Pray Love starring Julia Roberts

Part self-help guide, part autobiography, and part spiritual journey, Eat Pray Love concerns the recently divorced travel journalist Elizabeth Gilbert (Julia Roberts). Unhappy with her fling with young actor David (James Franco), Liz decides to take a year off to find herself while visiting Italy, India, and Bali. Given that Gilbert's original best-selling book was based on fact, I was struck by the various ways the film's writer and director Ryan Murphy glamorized the material, using much gorgeous backlighting to give the movie a softened romantic comedy glow. The visions of Bali and Italy respectively reminded me of a quote from J. D. Salinger: "God undoubtedly loves kittens, but not, in all probability, with Technicolor bootees on their paws." Instead of finding unknowns to play the men in Liz's life, Murphy stacks the cast with movie stars, leaving me wondering--how could Liz divorce Billy Crudup so easily? How can she just walk away from James Franco? Wouldn't it be nice to be nearly run over and then romanced by Javier Bardem in Bali?

Earnest enough in its itch for self-discovery, Eat Pray Love constantly betrays the way movies are better at depicting sensual pleasures than at showing ascetic absorption. As much as Liz seeks to free her mind, I kept noting how she much she consumes--buying jeans, enjoying excellent Italian food (savoring some spaghetti alla carbonara as Mozart's "Magic Flute" aria plays over the soundtrack), and renting beautiful Bali estates at cutthroat prices--but how does one film a movie star meditating? The movie is full of her efforts to pray, but it peddles a freeze-dried form of transcendence, a problem exacerbated by the truncated, episodic nature of the Liz's relationships with people in Italy, India, and Bali. In the book, there may have been time to develop some of this material, but in the movie, there's only time for Liz to bop in, learn something holy, and bop out. The film strip mines religious and cultural wisdom as it goes along.

Eat Pray Love also compulsively displays emotion. I confess that I prefer cold and malicious cinematic heroines (Bridget of The Last Seduction, for instance). Liz has wit and Roberts' charm (although I wondered about her suspiciously puffy upper lip), but she has much regret, sorrow, and guilt over dumping her husband to process amidst her travels. When she isn't weeping, her men certainly are. Bardem (who plays the Brazilian Felipe) tears up when saying goodbye to his teenage son as Liz watches wistfully. Liz's Texan friend in the Ashram, Richard (Richard Jenkins) chokes up as he confesses to her of how he almost drunkenly ran over his son. There's so much of this touchy-feely carrying-on, I realized that Liz (and by extension, perhaps, the movie's targeted audience) thrives on this emotional voyeurism. To seem real, everyone has to show his/her feelings therapeutically to merit what passes for characterization in this film.

Incidentally, Murphy displays a fondness for Cary Grant.  He tilts the camera when Liz wakes up one morning hungover in Bali to allude to the famous oblique camera angle of Cary Grant looking down at Ingrid Bergman in Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious.  Also, all of the talk of the phrase dolce far niente ("how sweet to do nothing") in Italy evokes a similar conversation in Grant's Houseboat (1958). 

In all, Eat Pray Love uneasily straddles the line between a woman's journey of self-discovery and a romantic comedy, a spiritual self-help guide full of pithy sayings ("Empty your mind so the universe can fill it with love"), and day-glo tourism ad visions of Bali and Italy. Gilbert's message, Murphy's direction, and Roberts' acting all know how to keep the message light and witty just in case anyone feels oppressed by all of the midlife crisis uplift. Liz strives to attain the ability to find balance, open her heart, find God dwelling within her, and "love the whole world," but boinking Javier Bardem and James Franco is more fun all around.

2 comments:

Simon said...

What I don't like is how this movie has every single person just dying to give Julia Roberts some wisdom and drop everything to cater her.

That is all.

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Simon.

Like any writer, Liz is self-indulgent, but she does learn to be more selfless as the movie goes on. I was more bothered by the packaging of her epiphanies.