Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Eat Pray Love (Columbia Pictures, Plan B Entertainment, India Take One Productions, 2010)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Eat Pray Love (a title that drives me nuts typographically since there should be a comma after each of the first two words!), based on the mega-best selling book by Elizabeth Gilbert and turned into an engaging vehicle for Julia Roberts, directed by Ryan Murphy (who has only one previous feature-film credit as director, the engaging adaptation of Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors) from a script he co-write with Jennifer Salt based on Gilbert’s book. The DVD offered both the theatrical version and the director’s cut — we watched the latter, though according to it’s only five minutes longer — and the movie timed out to two hours and 25 minutes, almost the length of Inception, but for me it was considerably more entertaining not so much because it was based (more or less) on a true story but simply because it was about real people in a plane of reality in which I could believe, no matter how far removed it was from my own experience.

When the story begins, Elizabeth Gilbert (Julia Roberts) is burning out on her eight-year marriage to Stephen (Billy Crudup) and is getting restive about her whole life. She takes a trip to Bali and meets a medicine man named Ketut Liyer (Hadi Subiyanto) who predicts that she will soon lose all her money but she’ll get it back, and she’ll take a trip to Italy and then to India before returning to him. (Has anybody but me noticed that the three countries Liz Gilbert visited on her grand tour all have names beginning with “I” — Italy, India and Indonesia?) When she returns she drifts into an affair with David (James Franco), a boyish actor who has produced and starred in a play based on a Gilbert story called Permeable Membrane in which the female character so totally gives up her identity to her lover that she proudly proclaims herself to be his permeable membrane, letting in anything he wants in while keeping out anything he wants kept out. (It’s a pretty sickening vision of a relationship and an oddly dated one — it seems more like something from the 1950’s than the 2000’s.) Her relationship, such as it is, with David disintegrates at about the same time that Stephen, originally reluctant to divorce her, agrees to do so only as long as he gets all the community property.

But through David she’s discovered the Guru Gita (Gita Reddy, though we see her only in a photograph propped up on a chair and used as an object of veneration by her disciples during their mass services — she never appears “live” in the film and we’re told that she’s in New York while Liz is in India hoping to meet with her!), and she does her Grand Tour, first in Italy — where she spends most of four months in a flat with no running water (when she asks how she can take a bath she’s told she needs to boil water in kettles — and when she complains about how little water that involves she’s told, “Enough to wash everything that’s important”) when she’s not visiting musea, listening to opera (though the one bit of opera we hear isn’t Italian but German — the Queen of the Night’s second-act aria from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, performed by Sumi Jo with Georg Solti conducting the Vienna Philharmonic) or eating, eating, eating, so much so that in a quite charming comedy scene she’s shown having a difficult succession of struggles getting her tight pants to close properly until ultimately she has to break down and buy new, larger clothes. (One thing that annoyed me about this movie is that for someone who had supposedly lost all her money in her divorce, she seemed to have a bottomless supply of ready cash whenever she needed it — but then it’s been common across several decades of moviemaking either to ignore or deny the struggle for money commonplace in the real world.)

Then she heads off to India and to Guru Gita’s ashram, where she’s required to scrub the floors as a love offering of voluntary work (the filmmakers could have done more with the idea of pampered, overprivileged Americans being required to do manual labor as a condition of supposed spiritual enlightenment) and learn how to meditate — like the real-life Ringo Starr at the Maharishi’s compound, she finds it impossible to concentrate on meditation without being distracted by the hordes of flies common in India — as well as attending services punctuated by high-energy Indian music that seem more like the Hindu equivalent of an African-American gospel church than what we usually think of as the rites of an Eastern religion. While there she meets Richard (Richard Jenkins), a refugee from Texas who joined the guru’s church after his wife threw him out when, following years of what he describes as “drinking, drugs and meaningless cheating,” he nearly ran over their son while coming home from one of his drinking jags (the boy was sitting in the driveway, waiting for dad, when dad just headed straight towards him; fortunately, knowing from previous experience what he was up against, the kid got out of the way in time but the incident was the final straw that ended his marriage and cost him the chance to see his son grow up from 8 to 18). Richard calls Liz “Groceries” based on how much food she helps herself to from the communal buffet and gives her sensible talk that helps her more than the spiritual fooforaw that surrounds her — though what makes Liz decide she’s had enough is that just when she’s ready to take a vow of silence, the guru’s staff presses her into service as a sort of social director for a new batch of Americans visiting the ashram.

She ends up back in Bali, where she experiences a meet-cute with Brazilian émigré Felipe (Javier Bardem) — though this is supposed to be a true story, their first encounter (she’s riding a bicycle when he, reaching to adjust a jammed cassette in his car’s tape player, loses control and runs her off the road) has all the contrivance of a carefully concocted Hollywood movie script. She’s cruised not only by Felipe but also by his son, who’s white, Anglo-looking and speaks English with an Australian accent (it turns out he is Australian, sired there by Felipe with his then-wife, a white Australian), and in order to treat the wound from the accident she hooks up with a traditional Balinese healer, Wayan Nuriasih (Christine Hakim), and befriends her and her daughter Tutti (Anakia Lapae). When Liz finds out that Wayan was divorced by her husband and, according to Balinese tradition, got absolutely nothing from the marriage except custody of Tutti, she sends a batch of e-mails to all her friends in New York saying that in lieu of birthday presents, she wants cash donations to a fund to build Wayan and Tutti a house — she nets $18,000, easily enough to finance the construction — and she makes a big deal out of the fact that “Tutti” is not only the little girl’s name but also the Italian word for “everybody” (incidentally, it also means “everything” and “all”), thereby making some sort of point about the oneness of all humanity. The film ends with Liz breaking down her barriers towards love, commitment and sex and going with Felipe for all three; he makes a proposal that they get together and spend half of each year in Bali (where he needs to be for the import-export business that supports him) and half in New York, and though the movie leaves it at that Elizabeth Gilbert recently published a sequel to her book, Committed, which is about how she had to put aside her intense skepticism about getting married again because legally marrying Felipe was the only way she could get him a visa so he could enter the U.S. as a documented immigrant.

Eat Pray Love isn’t a great movie by any means — there’s a part of me that wishes it could have been made in the 1930’s or 1940’s with Carole Lombard or my ongoing favorite actress of all time, Barbara Stanwyck, who could have brought a depth and richness to this rather shallow character that eluded Ms. Roberts — but it is an engaging one. At times it seems like a Lifetime movie, only with a major star and a bigger budget, which allowed the company to film on the actual locations where Ms. Gilbert’s story took place instead of having to find places in Canada that could stand in for them — though the decision to do that much traveling cost Julia Roberts the services of her preferred director, Garry Marshall, who didn’t want to do a film that would involve so many foreign locations. What I especially liked about it, despite some of the flaws of current films (including that maddening habit of modern cinematographers to film virtually all interiors as if the rooms, the clothes, the people and everything else were made of the most deeply burnished mahogany — if there were a way I could intervene and break the “brown control” on every color camera and roll of film in the moviemaking world, I would), was that its characters came off as real people, flawed but likable. At one point during the early New York sequences I joked that I half-expected Woody Allen to turn up any moment — let’s face it, no one in film has quite skewered the Manhattan pseudo-intellectual crowd as well as he has — but as the film progressed I not only didn’t miss him but I was captivated by the genuine warmth and richness of the characterizations.

Also, though I’m not normally a fan of Julia Roberts, I think she was perfectly cast here; the part of Elizabeth Gilbert is right in the middle of her rather narrow acting range, calling for perkiness, charm and an ability to remain likable even while depicting the almost maddening self-absorption that is the character’s single most annoying and unsympathetic trait. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare Eat Pray Love to Inception because they’re in such different genres with such different histories and traditions, but I found the 2 ½ hours I spent with Eat Pray Love considerably more pleasant than the 2 ½ hours I spent with Inception because in Eat Pray Love I was spending it with characters I could relate to, ones who had rich emotional lives and whose flaws I could accept as those of real human beings — and because the story remained grounded in actual reality (albeit an upper-class or at least upper-middle-class reality far more affluent than anything I or virtually anyone I know actually lives) and I could accept these people and feel for them. Incidentally, Charles thought Julia Roberts was too old for the part — she said that she had her three children (by her current husband, whom she married in 2002) just under the wire of her biological clock — though according to their biographies on Roberts is less than two years older than the real Elizabeth Gilbert (Roberts was born on October 28, 1967, Gilbert on July 18, 1969).