Silver Screen: Eat Pray Love ***

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Silver Screen: Eat Pray Love ***
Bryan Miller

***

Translating Elizabeth Gilbert's bestselling memoir Eat Pray Love to the screen is a trickier proposition than it might seem at first-- not because of the high expectations of its devoted fans or the exotic location shoots it requires, but because the book, for all its globetrotting and sensual revelry, essentially chronicles an interior journey. When the literal goal of a story's quest is something as intangible as "find inner peace," it's difficult to build momentum. In fact, an expensive Hollywood movie (probably viewed by an audience sitting in a hyper-air-conditioned moviehouse wing of a shopping mall, as I saw it) is antithetical to the kind of inner searching and harmony with nature the movie espouses.

That leaves director Ryan Murphy (creator of Nip/Tuck and Glee, neither of which are exactly Emersonian) with little choice but to film the story's gleaming surface while only dipping an exploratory toe or two into its potential depths.

America's attractive middle-aged lady next door, Julia Roberts, stars as writer Liz, who gets her fix of excitement writing travel articles and stories but leads an otherwise tame domestic life with her flaky, aimless husband Stephen (Billy Crudup). Dissatisfied and staring down forty, she makes what some of her friends think is a rash decision: She kicks helpless hubby to the curb, shuns the baby-making endeavor, and decides to find herself, in the Oprah Winfrey sense of the phrase.

Finding herself first takes the form of shacking up with a scruffy himbo actor (James Franco) nearly a decade her junior, but that only heightens her alienation. Eventually she opts to follow, kinda loosely, some wisdom handed down to her from a medicine man in Bali, so she embarks on a three-phase journey: She'll spend four months in Italy eating good food, four months in India learning to meditate, and four months in Bali kickin' it with her main medicine man Ketut (Hadi Subiyanto).

It takes Eat Pray Love a solid forty minutes to find its footing, but it establishes an easy rhythm once Liz leaves the country-- maybe a little too easy. She travels somewhere, makes a couple of friends, picks up some relevant advice from their subplots, then moves on to the next spot. It's a little too neat, as spiritual quests go.

Murphy is more adept when the film turns into a lusty travelogue. He and sharp-eyed cinematographer Robert Richardson lovingly capture the marvels of Italian architecture and especially its cuisine, reveling in money shots of parmesan dousing mounds of soft, yielding spaghetti; the vivid colors and dizzying bustle of India, contrasted with the calm silence of the meditation center; and the verdant splendor of Bali, to say nothing of designated heartthrob Javier Bardem.

Murphy and company appear to have noble intentions. It's hard to fault a movie for at least attempting to convey both the difficulties of learning and the rich rewards of practicing meditation. It's just not camera-friendly, and besides, it might take an entire movie to convey something so profound and ephemeral on film-- whereas our heroine has to hurry it up to make room also for the eating and the loving.

Speaking of the loving, the romance, which feels imminent before our romantic lead even enters the frame, is a little tepid. Murphy and cowriter Jennifer Salt clearly go out of their way to emphasize that Liz is independent and that her quest is more than just the hunt for a good man, yet the constant references to her conflicted feelings for her two former loves as well as her loneliness makes Bardem's sudden and, let's face it, cliché (a car accident? Really?) introduction and meet-cute with Liz feel like standard rom-com fodder. It turns Bardem into the swarthy, charismatic pot of bronze at the end of the rainbow, when in fact the espoused goal is personal fulfillment. It's largely the result of the limitations of the medium and Murphy's conventional approach, but it's still anticlimactic-- although my wife assures me that no movie that ends with Javier Bardem's arrival could be anticlimactic or unfulfilling.

But Murphy does okay, with some significant help from his lead actors and some better-than-the-material performances from supporting players like the great Richard Jenkins. Eat Pray Love is not a bad movie at all. It's perfectly pleasant, if pleasant is what you're looking for.