The double standard in Hollywood may be stronger than ever. Men are free to pursue all kinds of adventures, while women are expected to pursue men. In a typical big-studio romantic comedy the heroine’s professional ambition may not always be an insurmountable obstacle to matrimony, but her true fulfillment — not just her presumed happiness but also the completion of her identity — will come only at the altar.
This paradigm is, of course, much older than the movies, but it can be refreshing, now and then, to see something different in the multiplex: a movie that takes seriously (or for that matter has fun with) a woman’s autonomy, her creativity, her desire for something other than a mate.
The scarcity of such stories helps explain the appeal of movies like the two “Sex and the City” features, “Julie & Julia,” “The Blind Side” and now “Eat Pray Love,” a sumptuous and leisurely adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling memoir of post-divorce globe-trotting. Directed by Ryan Murphy, who wrote the screenplay with Jennifer Salt, the film offers an easygoing and generous blend of wish fulfillment, vicarious luxury, wry humor and spiritual uplift, with a star, Julia Roberts, who elicits both envy and empathy.
Playing a woman whose natural self-confidence is dented by disappointment and threatened by remorse, Ms. Roberts dims her glamour without snuffing it out altogether, as she tried to do in Mike Nichols’s unfortunate “Closer.” Her Liz Gilbert can be radiant and witty, and rarely doubts her essential attractiveness, but she also suffers uncertainty, ambivalence and real anguish. The end of her marriage — to a kind, weak-willed oddball played by Billy Crudup — is wrenching before it has a chance to be fully liberating. And her rebound relationship, with a soulful younger actor (James Franco), only exacerbates Liz’s sense that she is drifting away from herself.
This may strike you as an abstract problem, and one that depends, for both its articulation and its proposed solution, on a high degree of material security and social entitlement. So many people in this world confront much graver threats to their well-being: violence, poverty, oppression. This woman has nothing but good luck! True enough, but the kind of class consciousness that would blame Liz for feeling bad about her life and then taking a year abroad to cure what ails her strikes me as a bit disingenuous — a way of trivializing her trouble on the grounds of gender without having to come out and say so.
What “Eat Pray Love” has — what the superficial “Sex and the City 2” notably lacked — is a sense of authenticity. Whether you decide to like Liz, and whether you approve of her choices and the expectations she has set for herself, it is hard not to be impressed by her honesty. The same can be said for Ms. Gilbert (to distinguish between the author and narrator of the book and the character she becomes when impersonated by Ms. Roberts). And the screenwriters, copiously sprinkling the author’s supple, genial prose into dialogue and voice-over, maintain a clear sense of her major theme. As the movie meanders through beautiful locations, grazing on scenery, flowers and food, it keeps circling back to the essential tension between Liz’s longing for independence and her desire to be loved.
Reflecting on her earlier life, she observes that for most of it she was either with a man or in the process of leaving one, and so in the first stages of her journey she experiments with singleness. Not with solitude, exactly, since Liz is naturally gregarious and acquires friends easily. Back home in New York she has Delia (Viola Davis), and in Rome a Swedish woman named Sofi (Tuva Novotny) introduces her to an amicable group of Italians, including a fellow whose last name is Spaghetti (Giuseppe Gandini). While he is seen mainly in group shots, his namesake food is filmed in loving close-ups.
In keeping with the theme of self-examination, Liz’s trip is confined to countries that begin with the letter “I.” From the trattorias and ruins of Italy, to an ashram in India, and then to Indonesia. At the ashram she meets a cantankerous Texan named Richard (Richard Jenkins) whose nickname for her is Groceries and whom she accuses of “speaking in bumper stickers.” This is a stone tossed from inside a glass house, given the aphoristic, wisdom-mongering tone of much of “Eat Pray Love,” but it is also a welcome wink of self-awareness, indicative of the good humor that redeems some of the film’s (and the book’s) muzzy therapeutic moments. The three themes enumerated in the title are explored with a cheerful tact unlikely to trouble any tastes or sensibilities. The food is not overly spicy or exotic — spaghetti in Rome, pizza in Naples; the religion not uncomfortably, you know, religious; and the sex discreet almost to the point of invisibility. In Bali Liz apprentices herself to an elderly shaman (the irrepressible scene stealer Hadi Subiyanto) and befriends a healer named Wayan (Christine Hakim). She also falls for Felipe, a divorced Brazilian expatriate, played with insouciant, unshaven charm by Javier Bardem.
Will her feelings for Felipe cause her to abandon the self-sufficiency that had been the point of her quest? And because “Eat Pray Love” builds its climax around this question, does that mean, in the end, that it reverts to the man-centric romantic-comedy formula? Yes and no. Mr. Murphy, whose television work (“Nip/Tuck” and “Glee,” most notably) can be sharp-edged even to the point of meanness, is much softer here, and “Eat Pray Love” can serve as a reminder that television is, at the moment, a braver and more radical medium than the movies.
“Eat Pray Love” is unlikely to change anybody’s life or even to provoke emotions anywhere near as intense as those experienced, early and late, by its intrepid heroine. Its span may be global, but its scope is modest, and it accepts a certain superficiality as the price of useful insight. Watch. Smile. Go home and dream of Brazilians in Bali.
This review was published in The New York Times.
The book is available here.