Julia Roberts returns to headlining films with Eat, Pray, Love. Roberts plays Liz Gilbert, a travel writer “trapped” in an unhappy marriage. And by “trapped” I mean “they have no children and she makes all the money.” Throwing off the shackles of her oppression, Gilbert leaves her husband and takes up with David (James Franco), a young actor who is starring in an Off-Off Broadway play she has written. But when that also proves unable to satiate her nagging sense of ennui, she comes up with a grand plan. She will take a year off work in order to spend time, not looking for romance but, looking for herself. So she jets off to Italy where she decides to make a feminist statement by *gasp* eating whatever she wants – her figure be damned. Of course, that feminist ideal might resonate more strongly had she not just proclaimed that she was going to spend the next year of her life deliberately trying to not get laid.
In case you couldn’t tell…I didn’t care for the film.
This is the sort of movie where people say things like “I don’t know how to be here” and “Ruin is the road to transformation.” Or where one character instructs another, “Believe in love again.” And if you made it through any of that without cringing, then this movie is for you. Personally, I couldn’t believe that the actors could spit this stuff out with a straight face. The film is nothing more than an assortment of repackaged platitudes being passed off as profundities.
The film’s view of other cultures amounts to the sort of well-intentioned condescension that would be dismissed as racist if not for the fact that it was being said with a smile. Italians talk with their hands and have mastered the art of “doing nothing.” Indians are either charming street urchins or Hindu-practicing gurus who can impart mystical wisdom. (She even compares one of them to Yoda.) And Brazilians are good lovers. The filmmakers hurl one cultural stereotype after another and expect the audience to accept them as insightful merely because they meant them in a good way.
Granted, I am not the target demo for a film like this. It is clearly a wish-fulfillment fantasy for White middle-aged women who are dissatisfied with their lot in life. And honestly, that’s ok. It’s actually kind of admirable, since so few major films these days are made for anyone other than teenage boys. But the film is so unbelievably tone deaf that it feels as if they asked those same teenage boys to make a movie that they think a 45-year old woman would like. Her marriage and life are so divorced from reality that I (as a short, fat guy with a hot wife) can’t help but ask: Ladies, is this how you feel when you watch King of Queens?
I couldn’t watch the film without wondering who lives like this. Who can afford to take a year off work let alone spend that year traveling the globe? Furthermore, who among us would have that job waiting for them upon their return? And it doesn’t matter that it’s all based on a true story. The film isn’t presenting this as a remarkable story that you just gotta hear. It envisions itself as offering solemn guidance. Gilbert’s journey is presented so matter-of-factly that it takes on a snobbish air of smugness; as if anyone could do this and only a fool wouldn’t. “Come on, ladies. Leave your husbands, blow off work, move to Indonesia and seek spiritual enlightenment. It’s easy.”
The movie does occasionally attempt to head its detractors off at the pass. One character remarks that Gilbert is acting like a college student (yup) while another tells her what she really needs a therapist (true dat). At another point Gilbert tells someone to “stop talking like a bumper sticker”…presumably because that’s her job. But the film never truly addresses the fact that Gilbert has something most women, no…strike that…most people don’t have: options. She has no children, tons of money and a job she can walk away from without destroying her career. (The real life Gilbert funded her journey self-discovery with the advance she received for the book that she was going to write about her journey of self-discovery. It’s like a snake eating its own tail/tale.) It’s not that I begrudge her gaming the system. I applaud her actually. Just don’t act like this is something we can all pick up and do. There’s a reason Oprah Winfrey dedicated two full episodes of her show to the book that this film is based on…she’s the only person who could actually afford to do anything that you see happen here.
The final hour of the film is essentially an infomercial for Hinduism as Gilbert seeks inner peace and illumination. (On a side note – somewhere there is a college level thesis to be written about the respect and deference with which Hollywood treats any religion that isn’t Christianity.) Journeys of self-discovery are, by virtue of definition, intensely personal things and, as such, run the risk of coming off as the tedious navel-gazing of the privileged class; which is precisely what happens here. There’s something off-putting about watching someone embark upon just such a journey when most of us would be happy to end up where she started. Eat, Pray, Love, with its travelogue jet-setting and clichéd words of wisdom, is a mind-numbingly pretentious film. There’s nothing here that couldn’t be accomplished (and accomplished better) by reading Chicken Soup for the Soul while watching the Travel Channel with the sound down.