At heart, Eat Pray Love, based on the outrageously successful, Oprah-anointed best-seller, is a travelogue, an inner road movie where the heroine travels from point A (depressed, self-absorbed, unlucky in love) to point B (happy, semi-self-absorbed, lucky in love). And as such, it's hard to turn that into compelling filmmaking. (Except, perhaps, for the lucky-in-love part.) After all, even as the protagonist (Julia Roberts) is eating and praying and loving around the world, the conflict chiefly takes place in her own head. And while a few films have been successful in engaging us through the heroine's inner process (Precious comes immediately to mind), others attempting to do so thud along with cringe-inducing earnestness. (The Book of Eli, despite Denzel's best efforts.)
So, as movies with a message go, Eat Pray Love falls somewhere in the middle. It's not bad-bad. But it's not good-good, either. It is good-natured, though, cheerfully lumbering around the world, bathing everything — and Roberts — in a beatific golden glow, taking its sweet time to get to the point. Apparently, for the filmmakers (Glee creator Ryan Murphy), brevity isn't the better part of valor. After the umpteenth sumptuous shot of pasta and pizza and antipasto in the "Eat" part of the film, I found myself looking at my watch and wondering: Are we there yet? At this rate, we'll never get to Bali! (That would be the Love portion of the movie, whereupon our heroine encounters the manly manliness of Javier Bardem and life starts looking a hell of a lot better for her — and for the audience.)
These days, it's hard to escape the Eat Pray Love phenomenon. There's an Eat Pray Love store-within-a-store at Cost Plus World Bazaar, an Eat Pray Love licensing deal with HSN, an Eat Pray Love-inspired fashion line and now, the Eat Pray Love movie. But first came the book, a memoir by novelist-journalist Elizabeth Gilbert, detailing her struggles to overcome a bad marriage, an expensive divorce and crippling depression through travel.
The movie, like the book, is structured in four parts: 1. Prologue, where the heroine prepares to hit the road; 2. Eat, where she soothes her soul by eating her way through Rome; 3. Pray, where she soothes her soul in India by, uh, praying; and 4. Love, where she tries to synthesize everything that she learned from eating and praying in Bali. In the prologue, we encounter Liz (Roberts), a magazine writer who meets a toothless spiritual healer on a reporting trip to Bali. "You're going to lose all your money," he tells her, smiling, "and then you'll get it all back." Oh, and she'll have two marriages — one short, one long. "Which one am I in now?" she asks him.
Murphy, as the director and co-writer, actually handles Liz's internal workings with a deft, light hand: There are flashbacks and imagined conversations, brief flights of fancy. When God talks — and yes, God is apparently a woman — it's just a quick, effective whisper with a simple command: "Go back to bed, Liz." We see Liz's pain; we get it: She hurts. And when she eats, we get it: It's an orgasmic experience.
Roberts, in her first starring role in quite some time, serves up vintage Roberts, all big smiles, guffawing laugh and tremulous tears. When it comes to evoking emotion, she can roll with the best of them, registering a tsunami of feeling with a mere shift in facial muscles. Still, you never, ever forget that you're watching Julia Roberts playing a character experiencing those feelings. She doesn't morph. (But yay to the filmmakers for depicting a beautifully aging woman sans the steamroller effect of Botox. Frowns and laugh lines are on the endangered list in Hollywood.)
Ultimately, Eat Pray Love never reaches the transcendence that it's aiming for. Part of this is because the movie, though it's taking the audience on a tour of the world, doesn't take us anywhere new with its observations: Italians talk with their hands! We're in India, so time to crank up the volume with another M.I.A song! (Never mind that M.I.A. is Sri Lankan.) And yes, I know that this is a real-life road movie, but seriously, do we have to go there again? Must the white protagonist find redemption through the aid of magical colored people?
You could argue that Eat Pray Love is all about the problems of pretty, privileged people, problems that Humphrey Bogart would insist don't amount to a hill of beans in the grand scheme of things. But I'd argue that problems are problems and pain is pain; we're all looking for a little redemption, whether it's of the sacred or the secular variety. So I don't begrudge Julia Roberts, playing the real-life Liz Gilbert, her quest for salvation. There aren't enough good, meaty roles for female actors of any color, especially once they've crossed over that invisible "over 40" line. I just wish that there were more opportunities for the Viola Davises of the world to break out of the bad wigs and the tired roles of the wise best friend and get a chance to eat, pray and love themselves through Rome, India, Bali — and maybe Capetown and Rio, too. Now, that would be something to celebrate.
Teresa Wiltz is The Root's senior editor. Follow her on Twitter.