Julia Roberts, once a cinematic force to be reckoned with and the first woman ever to demand at least $15million per film, seldom shows her prodigiously wide smile on screen these days. The former rom-com darling is in her mid-forties now – ancient by Hollywood’s ruthless standards – and so Eat Pray Love, an adaptation of the best-selling memoir of the same name, is a decidedly grown-up chick flick about a divorcee who travels around the world to ‘find herself’.
Roberts plays Liz Gilbert, a travel writer who separates from both her husband (Billy Crudup) and her young lover (James Franco) in order to find happiness: first in Italy, where she Eats; then in India, where – note the pattern emerging – she Prays; and finally in Indonesia, where she meets Felipe (Javier Bardem), who, as you will have correctly guessed, she Loves.
Essentially, Liz embarks upon a midlife crisis gap year, a jolly around the world to ‘find herself’, much like a teenager with a trust-fund. Her journey of self-discovery feigns as something more complex than it actually is. When you take an already superficial book and put it through the destructively superficial process of adapting to screen, the result is an evident vacuum of substance.
Undoubtedly, this is a gorgeous little film, benefiting greatly from the stunning array of locations and beautiful cinematography. Indeed, the respective tourist agencies must be rubbing their hands with delight at the idyllic but inauthentic portrayals – the first act, set in Rome, seems to have been lifted directly from a postcard stand, and a perpetual sunset lingers in the background of nearly every scene.
But the script is too limp to escape the exhausted ‘one woman’s journey’ or ‘boy meets girl’ paradigms. Any articulate discourse on love and happiness that might have been found in the book has mostly been lost in the transfer to screen. Liz’s narration occasionally appears in voiceover, an unwise and sloppy device at the best of times which distracts rather than embellishes. All that is left is the bare bones of the straightforward story, and the occasional flimsily laconic musing on life, such as: “Having a baby is like having a tattoo on your face – you need to be committed.”
The cast are almost uniformly excellent: Crudup, Franco and Bardem are as good as ever. Richard Jenkins gives an extraordinary turn as a Texan Hindu that Liz befriends; were this a weightier film, he would surely be a shoo-in for some Best Supporting Actor gongs at the upcoming awards season. And Roberts is just as you remember her, alternating between that famously gargantuan smile and moments of genuine emotion, though whether you will be convinced by her performance does depend on whether you are someone happy to spend ninety minutes in her company.
Yet it’s tricky to be convinced by any of these characters with a script this lame. It’s truly difficult to empathise with Liz, a woman whose unhappiness is never really explained, and whose solution – to go on a year-long holiday round the world – seems a little out-of-touch in these purse-tightening times. Fans of the book and Ms Roberts will most likely be satisfied, yet Eat Pray Love is ultimately a pretty but shallow film, and one that never really amounts to the treatise on life that it thinks it achieves.