Of Pizza, Love and Elephants

Eat Pray Love is an obvious story with no surprises. After Gilbert has eaten and prayed, she will find love

01 October, 2010

THE PRETTY WOMAN is going through a mid-life crisis and somehow we are supposed to care about it. There was a time when the thrill of seeing a Julia Roberts movie would be in looking at her wide mouthed, somewhat self-conscious smile with sparkling teeth and loud, awkward laughter.

Roberts’ decision to act in Eat Pray Love—a film based on a memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert—is interesting. Although Roberts and Gilbert did not live similar lives, there is enough in common between the two—especially the fear of commitment.

Roberts went through several unhappy relationships with movie stars. None of them matched the success of her professional life. Roberts walked out on a near-marriage to actor Kiefer Sutherland without any explanation. In fact, her 1999 film Runaway Bride paralleled her personal life at that time. In 2002 Roberts married cinematographer Daniel Moder and has had three kids with him. As she turns 47 this year, she has slowed down her acting career.

Gilbert—at least what she writes in her book and what is reflected in the film directed by Ryan Murphy—also walked out of what seemed to be a hapless marriage (Billy Crudup plays her husband in the film) and a subsequent relationship with a young hottie played by James Franco.

Gilbert then set off on a journey of self discovery—travelling to Italy, India and Indonesia, knowing well in advance that these three travel destinations, in that particular order, will bring a sense of balance to her life. Roberts seems comfortable with her marriage to Moder, but in the weeks prior to the film’s release in the US, she told Elle magazine that she had discovered calmness through her exposure to Hinduism. In fact, she said that she had converted to Hinduism and was chanting regularly.

We all fell in love with Roberts in her 1990 hit film Pretty Woman, but in Eat Pray Love she often forgets to smile. There are some tears, and a lot of confused sadness—especially in the beginning of the film, as her character walks out of the marriage and then the relationship. It is never quite explained what she feels is lacking in her life. But she has the luxury of taking a year off to figure it out.

It is not easy to dismiss Eat Pray Love as a story. Gilbert apparently lived through what she wrote in the book. The film has already made over 70 million dollars in the US and has been a decent draw for middle-aged women, despite tepid reviews. Gilbert’s journeys, especially to Italy and Indonesia, are the stuff of glossy travel magazines, and under Murphy’s direction, the film is packed with clichés and often seems rather farfetched.

In one scene, Gilbert walks as Murphy and his cinematographer track her head with a radiant light. We know that this woman is blessed, since the director has given her a halo. She is attractive, financially stable and no matter how much unhappiness she faces in her life, all will be well for her at the end of the film’s two-plus hours. Eat Pray Love is an obvious story with no surprises. After Gilbert has eaten and prayed, she will find love!

The journey starts in Rome, where Gilbert meets other attractive men and women, hangs out at sidewalk cafés and visits the city’s tourist destinations. Between walks through Rome’s picturesque, narrow, cobblestoned streets, she eats gelato sitting beside nuns who are also relishing the Italian ice cream. She eats a lot of pasta and even takes a trip to Naples to gorge on the city’s famed pizza. The food photography in the Italy section of Eat Pray Love is a delight to watch. And this part is sprinkled with Gilbert eating big family-style meals and drinking wine with random people she meets during her stay. She eventually learns the first of the three lessons in the film: the sweetness of doing nothing, something we are told the Italians excel in.

The Italian journey of eating ends, and suddenly Gilbert is in a small town in India. Her initial reactions are similar to those of other foreigners who travel to India. After the calmness and beauty of Italy, India seems like hell—way too many people, streets crowded with traffic, young beggar children, and all that heat and dust that foreigners complain about.

Gilbert enters an ashram in search of a guru, and is disappointed to learn that the spiritual leader is in New York. If she had inquired in advance, well, maybe then there would have been no book or movie.

At the ashram Gilbert meets Richard, an American from Texas, played with much warmth by Richard Jenkins. Gilbert initially finds Richard annoying but as time passes he grows on her. In one of the film’s rare truthful moments, Richard, a divorced man, talks to Gilbert about how much he misses his son. Gilbert also befriends a 17-year-old devotee in the ashram, Tulsi (Rushita Singh), who has to accept her fate of an arranged marriage.

The India sections have Roberts’ Gilbert wearing a green sari, remembering and regretting her own marriage and finally learning her second lesson: that God dwells in all of us. And since the India journey would not be complete without the ultimate cliché—Gilbert gets to touch an elephant.

And that takes us to Gilbert’s final destination: Bali. While riding a bicycle she is pushed off the road by a Brazilian, Felipe—Javier Bardem with constant three-day stubble. She accidentally meets Felipe a few more times—she is, after all, now passing through the love chapter of the film. The local people she meets suggest that every woman needs a husband. And by examining her knees, one local woman can also tell that Gilbert has not had sex for a while. In Eat Pray Love, the people of the East are indeed wise!

Never mind the fact that Roberts and Bardem have no chemistry (Roberts also lacks chemistry with her other two male co-stars in the film, Crudup and Franco), but the forces of cinema are stronger than anything else. Since Roberts’ Gilbert has found some form of balance through the two lessons she picked up in Italy and India, all she has to do is to give that wide Pretty Woman smile and Felipe will be hers for the rest of her life.

Eat Pray Love does have a few redeeming qualities, most important being the soundtrack. Murphy has packed it with several classic songs and pieces of music that have previously featured in other films, including ‘The Long Road’ by Eddie Vedder and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (Dead Man Walking), Gato Barbieri’s lyrical theme from Last Tango in Paris and Neil Young’s hit ‘Heart of Gold.’ And the film is beautiful to look at, other than the section set in India.

But, eventually, Eat Pray Love is a flawed film with too much emphasis on an American woman who has to learn the ways of life through ancient European and Asian cultures. The film strives hard to be respectful of foreign cultures, but its understanding of all things non-American remains naïve and superficial.