World Hum Travel Movie Club: ‘Eat, Pray, Love’
Speaker's Corner: A big-screen incarnation of author Elizabeth Gilbert heads to Italy, India and Indonesia. Eva Holland and Eli Ellison go along for the ride.
08.16.10 | 8:49 AM ET
It’s been a long four years since Elizabeth Gilbert’s travel memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, began its extended stay on bestseller lists around the world. Now, after much anticipation, the film adaptation has arrived. But will the bestseller spawn a blockbuster? World Hum Travel Movie Clubbers Eva Holland and Eli Ellison set aside their half-eaten pasta dishes, rolled up their yoga mats and pedaled their Balinese bicycles to their neighborhood theaters to find out.
Subject: Nervous breakdown
Yesterday I hit rock bottom. While folding my girlfriend’s panties I realized the sad old laundromat is a welcome escape from the daily flood of phone calls from debt collectors and frantic “When can I expect this?” emails from my editor. My romantic relationship? It’s fine, so she tells me. But my pet cat does have tapeworms. And my car’s “Check Engine” light just went on, again.
You see, I’m as whiny, privileged and self-centered as Julia Roberts’ rendition of Elizabeth Gilbert. Never has a man been more ready to weep over travel treacle. Did I cry? Affirmative. A big crocodile tear rolled down my cheek during one scene, though I’ll deny that in court. As for the other two-plus hours of self-discovery prattle, they were mostly pure torture.
Having not read the book, I can only speak of the mess on screen, which often felt rushed. You read that right. If EPL had taken time to develop some kind of connection between Liz and the other come-and-go characters (especially in Italy), I’d have gladly sat through three hours.
As is, one of the few times EPL felt genuine was during the brief scenes between Liz and Tulsi (Rushita Singh), a 17-year-old girl she befriends at an ashram in India. After the girl’s arranged Indian wedding, they share a scene in which Liz devotes her recital of the Guru Gita to Tulsi. ‘Twas this that brought said tear to my eye. Sure, it’s designed to do that. But I’m a sucker for mush when it works. Not five minutes later, the searching-for-redemption “Richard from Texas” character (Richard Jenkins) blubbers through a confessional so affected and so clearly intended to trigger tears, I ceased to care. I sat back and shifted into full escapism mode.
As cinematic travel porn, it doesn’t get much better. Italy is like I remember it: Roman ruins, busy cafes and beautiful chaos. I’ve not visited India, but when the time comes I’m going on a God quest in an “air-conditioned meditation cave” just like Liz. Bali, near the top of my see-before-I-die list, looks fab. However, by the third act all I wanted was some high-def SCUBA footage of tropical fish, and for Liz to shaddup already.
I know you’re a rom-com sap. And I know you liked the book, but come on, you can’t tell me this is worth 10 bucks and two ass-numbing hours.
Subject: Eating popcorn and praying for the end
I’d like to disagree with you, Eli—because I loved the book, because I had medium-to-high hopes for the film, and, if nothing else, because a little conflict would make for a better movie club. But dammit if that two-point-five hours didn’t feel more like seven. Put bluntly: I was bored out of my tree.
You mentioned that the flick felt rushed; you’re dead on. There was a lot of ground to cover here, both physical and emotional, and all too often the effort to jam it all in resulted in choppy story-telling and, as you say, a superficial array of secondary characters. The result: I had serious trouble getting invested in the action. Why was Liz so unhappy in her marriage at the outset? Why was David, the young beau who swept in post-separation, so infatuated with our broken-down heroine? Why did those handsome, multilingual, thoughtful Italian men seem content to spend their days explaining their language and their country to a melancholy foreign woman?
I never got my answers, and I didn’t much care: I just wanted all the eating, praying and loving to end.
Let’s talk positives briefly. You’re right: The travel side of things was fantastic. I may not have cried on cue (unlike some supposedly-jaded critics I know) but the Italian scenes elicited numerous stomach grumbles, and I thought some of the movie’s lighter, funnier moments—Liz’s early, rapid-fire exchanges with Richard from Texas, for instance, or the snappy dialogue from stalwart friend Delia—were well written and well paced. Flavors of the month Steven, David and Felipe (played by Billy Crudup, James Franco and Javier Bardem) were welcome human additions to the geographical eye candy. But was it worth it? Unequivocally, no. Consider me officially disappointed with the travel movie event of the summer.
Subject: Chick power
Why was David so head over heels for Liz? Unlike me, he really seemed to enjoy folding his girlfriend’s delicates. Why was Liz unhappy in marriage? Its institutional trappings have deadened her soul and she owes herself independence. Come on, Eva, you’re supposed to be lapping up this chick power stuff.
Be honest. You loved the book? I read a few sample pages on Amazon. It’s well written, I suppose. But in the first chapter it’s already apparent her journey is too premeditated, too neat. The movie felt this way as well. Pretend the book didn’t exist and it’s easy to picture the Hollywood pitch meeting: “Julia Roberts finds herself in Italy, India and Indonesia. We get three hunks to go along with the three I’s, and BOOM, summer vacation box office gold, baby!”
EPL grossed a healthy $23.7 million in the US this weekend, but I think once the bad word of mouth gets out, this picture’s sunk. Not even the travelogue aspect can save this bore. Sure, it’s pretty to look at, but I can O.D. on glistening plates of pasta and aerial shots of the Colosseum watching Food Network and Travel Channel.
Before I go reclaim my manhood by watching some football, I pose a final question. I remember reading a scathing review of that other summer travel chick flick, “Sex and the City 2,” which said the movie was self-indulgent, unfunny and glorified “hedonism as the new feminism.” Don’t you think the same could be said about EPL?
Subject: People and places
“Hedonism as the new feminism”? Sure, I can see that. After all, we’re talking about a movie that presents multi-course Italian liquid lunches and subsequent new-fat-pants shopping sprees as rebellious push-back against modern-day beauty standards for women. Nothing a credit card can’t solve, right?
But here’s my real issue: It’s been said many a time, that a great travel story often rests on the shoulders of its characters. Or, put differently: The people make the place. And yeah, I did enjoy the book—in large part, I think, not because I have any desire to set out on a year-long spiritual journey of my own, but because the people in it felt real to me. And, as we both agreed above, that fullness of character just didn’t translate to the big screen. So you can cobble together an army of arty shots of fresh Roman asparagus and sad, lingering shots of dusty Indian children and you can place your actors in front of a thousand perfect Balinese sunsets—and director Ryan Murphy pulled out all the stops on that front—but if I don’t care about the people, I’m not going to care about their journey. End of story.