Elizabeth Gilbert’s mega-bestseller Eat Pray Love is a memoir, but it’s also as much a wish-fulfillment fantasy as any smutty romance novel: the story of a woman who ditched an unfulfilling marriage in favor of world travel, a joyous food binge, a spiritual enlightenment that brought out her inner self-validating cheerleader, and a sweaty love affair with an ardently devoted older man. Trouble is, most of the major changes took place inside her head and heart, which makes her story a natural fit for a book, but an awkward one for a film. Director Ryan Murphy (creator of Glee and Nip/Tuck; his only previous big-screen effort was 2006’s Running With Scissors, another adaptation of a hugely popular memoir) tries to communicate Gilbert’s pre-journey angst through darkly lit rooms, rainstorms, and aggrieved narration repurposed from the book; once she hits Italy, sunlight beams down transcendently, and every shot is calculated for beauty. But it’s all external trappings trying to express internal developments, and the movie’s hand-holding stridency just emphasizes the artificiality of its fantasy.
Julia Roberts’ emphatic performance as Gilbert is just one more element that feels overplayed. Like any superstar, Roberts has her familiar shticks, and she runs through them as if working from a list—the wide-eyed weepy looks as she navigates a divorce (from Billy Crudup) and an affair (with James Franco), the sunny smiles as she discovers the joys of guiltlessly focusing on her own pleasure. But the externalizing of what the book treated as an inner journey means that Murphy and co-writer Jennifer Salt (a frequent Nip/Tuck collaborator) have to portray these relationships in detail. And by showing Gilbert’s partners as real, confused, wounded people instead of abstract obstacles, he makes her look selfish and shallow, without ever coming closer to expressing the reasoning behind her choices.
And here, what she chooses looks awfully like a standard rom-com with exotic trappings. Some silly invented episodes involving an escaped elephant and a trumped-up final-act disagreement with idealized lover Javier Bardem force the story onto overly familiar ground. For someone supposedly focused on inner balance and self-determination, the film version of Gilbert spends an awful lot of time moping dramatically over her celibacy (to painfully obvious musical cues like Neil Young’s “Heart Of Gold”), or getting affirmation from sexy guys and wise gurus, including Richard Jenkins in a painfully scripted but well-acted role. It’s understandable: All these exposition-and-wisdom-spouting people help bring the action out of Gilbert’s head and into the world. But they also help transform it into a world not just of positive messages, but of silly clichés.