LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - In “Eat Pray Love,” Julia Roberts’ character, Liz Gilbert, takes a holiday from her miserable life as a respected, financially secure New York writer, loved by men she cannot love back and despairing of her inner emptiness. She travels the world to seek enlightenment, a journey -- she never hesitates to tell anyone she meets -- outside her own comfort zone.
For the viewer though, it’s anything but. The film never ventures, even once, into a situation that does not reek of comfy familiarity. Of course, the Elizabeth Gilbert memoir on which the movie is based also got criticized for its Western fetishization of Eastern thought and the overly self-conscious nature of this journey -- reportedly paid for with a publisher’s advance for the book itself. None of that stopped her memoir from becoming a bestseller translated into 40 languages.
So with Roberts making one of her increasingly rare starring appearances and the sensual beauty of Italy, India and Indonesia as backdrops for the romanticized navel-gazing, “Eat Pray Love” should attract a substantial and ill-served female audience when it opens on Friday via Columbia.
Working from a screenplay he wrote with Jennifer Salt, director Ryan Murphy, the creator of TV series “Nip/Tuck” and “Glee,” never loses track of the story’s bestseller attributes: foreign landscapes photographed at sunset or sunrise, food displayed with mouth-watering intensity, peripheral characters bursting with vitality, all men unnaturally gorgeous -- or at least interesting -- and female self-discovery as the unwavering central focus.
Reeling from a divorce and an affair that didn’t do the trick either, Liz tells her best friend and publisher (Viola Davis, not given nearly enough to do) that she intends to chuck everything for a year to research herself in exotic foreign climes. Everyone, including her ex (Billy Crudup) and new boy toy (James Franco), pulls long faces, but this gal makes a career out of thinking of nobody but herself.
Several months are spent in Rome to enjoy food and life (Eat), then off to India for meditation in an ashram (Pray) and finally to Bali, Indonesia, to search for “balance” but finding herself off-balance instead with a Brazilian tour guide (Love).
Each segment is thoroughly enjoyable in a touristic sort of way. And Roberts throws herself wholeheartedly into the role of the inner-truth seeker. There, of course, lies the problem. One can line a bookcase with memoirs, novels and DVDs about urban malcontents discovering food and life in Mediterranean climes. At least another bookshelf could be devoted to popular entertainments where Westerners seek spirituality in the East, dating back to Somerset Maugham’s “The Razor’s Edge” if not the earlier works of Hermann Hesse. Bali is a bit off the beaten path for such self-help entertainments, but after those terrorist bombings the place could use positive publicity.
In each segment, Liz is given role models. In Rome, a Scandinavian (Tuva Novotny) and local language coach (the absurdly handsome Luca Argentero) show Liz how to embrace life through cuisine. The girls even nip away to Naples for a pizza sequence! Her Roman lesson: Don’t be afraid to attack life.
In an unnamed Indian ashram, Richard Jenkins plays a Texan who struggles to forgive himself for his alcoholic past. He mocks and kids Liz to cajole her to do likewise. Then a young girl (Rushita Singh), who dreads her arranged marriage, reminds Liz of her own unarranged marriage and its failure. Her Indian lesson: God dwells within me.
In Bali, two healers (Indonesian screen legend Christine Hakim and newcomer Hadi Subiyanto) provide Liz with medicine for her ailing soul. Her Bali lesson: If you’re a good girl, you may get Javier Bardem. As Liz sails off into a sunset, you imagine that last lesson will be the one that sticks.
There is an undeniable attractiveness to all this, however doubtful the self-realization lessons may be. One can imagine whiling away pleasant hours watching this movie again as a late-night DVD or in-flight movie. The charms of each location and the vigor of the film’s supporting players cast a romantic glow. No, travel -- and certainly self-realization -- is ever quite like this. But it should be.