Eat Pray Love was more than just one woman's story from the very beginning-- writer Elizabeth Gilbert funded her year-long trip around the world with a publisher's advance, and experienced her stays in Italy, India and Indonesia with the knowledge that they would go into a book, and hopefully a successful one. The resulting bestseller phenomenon is something no one could have anticipated, but now that we have Eat Pray Love the movie, it's clearer than ever that Liz Gilbert, as played by Julia Roberts, is more avatar for all women than an actual human being. We watch her and her blond highlights and her tasteful clothes travel the globe because we cannot do the same, and whatever story might come along with it needs only to not get in the way of all the wish-fulfillment going on in the theater.
Ryan Murphy might seem like an odd choice to handle all of this, given that his current hit show Glee gets in its own way constantly, subbing cute lines and manic plot twists for actual character and story. But Eat Pray Love swings the opposite direction, taking itself and its star way too seriously to carry the same thrill as Gilbert's book. Roberts positively sparkles in the lead role-- and she's in nearly every frame, so that helps a lot-- but the loose structure and deliberately uncertain resolution of the book translate oddly to the screen, a woman struggling to find her purpose in a movie that doesn't understand itself, much less her.
For all the things Eat Pray Love does right, it must constantly overcome its cardinal sin of turning a quick little book into a bloated monster of a movie. Eat Pray Love is nearly two and a half hours long, to the point that 45 minutes go by before Gilbert does any of the three things promised in the title; the story lingers on her divorce (from an affable and slightly pathetic Billy Crudup) longer than the book did, creates a romantic god out of a minor fling (played by a disheveled and sexy James Franco), and doggedly sticks with Gilbert's New York life until we're practically screaming at her to get the hell on that plane. In her book Gilbert established in a few quick sentences the total devastation of divorce, but Murphy and his co-screenwriter Jennifer Salt spend much more time telling us much less; when Gilbert arrives in Italy we're intended to feel her thrill of being alone at last, but despite all that exposition we're still struggling to understand this unusual woman able to live the fantasy of leaving it all behind.
There was a sharp realism at the center of Gilbert's book that grounded all the self-obsessed yammering, but all of that, predictably, is absent here. The real Gilbert spent her time in Rome learning how to live life on her own and deliberately resisting romance; movie Gilbert constantly shares meals at tables full of laughing, international faces, and ends her stay with a speech about how lucky she is to be part of a community. The segment at an ashram in India is mostly unscathed, thanks to a beautifully felt performance from Richard Jenkins as a fellow worshipper, but in the movie version Gilbert visits the ashram at the suggestion of her young boyfriend, David, not due to her own spiritual devotion; what was originally a symbol of self-reliance becomes in the movie another example of a woman doing something because a man encouraged her to.
The final section in Bali is the most traditional-- a woman travels to an exotic location, meets an exotically handsome man (Javier Bardem, delectable), falls in love-- and also the best executed, maybe because all the spirituality of India and hedonism of Italy were harder to translate to the screen. Still, as fun as it is to watch Roberts and Bardem roll around in the sheets and marvel at Bali's exquisite beauty, the real-life Gilbert is once again let down. Her romance with Brazilian Felipe is left deliberately uncertain in the book, written by a woman burned by divorce who has just learned to live for herself again. Movie Gilbert says heated but vague things about not needing to love someone else to prove that she loves herself, but just in time for closing shot she's clambering onto a boat with her love and quite literally riding off into the sunset. It's an immense cop-out, but not surprising given the two and a half hours of platitudes and incredibly simple "tough decisions" that have come before it.
Honestly, this would all be fine if it weren't for the gargantuan running time, which is likely to test the patience of even the most devoted guilty pleasure seekers. Yes, it is fun to sit back and marvel at the scenery and the food and Julia Roberts's enduring star power, and you will walk out of the theater and either immediately book a trip to Bali or, the cheaper option, make a beeline for your neighborhood's best pizza place. Eat Pray Love is an effective and frequently satisfying indulgence, but not nearly as much as the book was, and not as much as it could have been with a little more focus and confidence in its own ideas.