Eat, pray, love: in these three words lies the secret to a fulfilling, balanced life. Or at least according to this film it does, that is, if you are a metropolitan professional woman, have a fairly unlimited budget, no discernible critical faculty when it comes to things Eastern and a pretty unswerving sense that the universe begins and ends with you.
There are also enough of you to make up a very decent audience for Eat Pray Love, which should account for its box-office success in the US (people have been going back to see it two, three times apparently). It is an adaptation of a hugely popular bestseller (on the New York Times list for more than 180 weeks) by one Elizabeth Gilbert, who, her marriage over and deciding there was something off-balance, something out of kilter in her life, took off for Italy, India and Bali in search of, er, well, something that would put it in kilter again. Lucky girl. She also financed the trip with the advance she got for the book she was eventually going to write about her epiphanies. Clever girl, too.
Gilbert, already a successful travel writer, probably bears little resemblance to Julia Roberts, who plays her here with her trademark brink-of-tears, damaged look — a shtick which nevertheless fails to hide the hard-edged, disdainful streak which comes out in most of her performances sooner or later. I haven’t read the book, but I’m sure that the experiences Gilbert describes must surely have been a bit tougher than what Roberts goes through in director Ryan Murphy’s film — or at least, for the benefit of the American reading public, I hope they were. Our heroine’s path through the minefield of cultural nuances is virtually seamless. There is so much glowing goodwill in this movie, so much healing karma, that, well, darn it, it’s about fit to explode.
The “Eat” section — or should I say portion? — sees Julia learning about the sensuality of good cooking in Italy, where she is taught to loosen her uptight belt a little in the country which, to Europhile Americans, knows how to live like no other. Thus we see her surrounded by happy Italians eating di famiglia — a scenario which, given the country’s catastrophically plunging birthrate, is surely becoming increasingly rare. But no matter — this is Sunday Style Supplement as cinema. “Pray” arrives, and we’re off to dip into India. Again, lavishly photographed, dripping with hinterland, where our wanderer-after-meaning is a witness at a simply delightful arranged marriage (now there’s one way to achieve balance), about which she seems to have no opinion whatsoever.
And finally comes “Love”, which arrives for Julia in Bali in the shape of rugged, handsome and impetuous Javier Bardem. Luckily for our girl, underneath the slightly hippy exterior he is also something of an alpha male, being a successful businessman. So no money worries in the future, either. Talk about landing on your feet.
I saw Eat Pray Love in California, where prevailing New Age preoccupations and epic self-absorption meant it was, predictably, going down a storm. The audience was full of middle-class women who, no doubt nursing some sense of being under-appreciated, were fully behind Julia and her half-baked attempts to find herself. But what is it exactly that they have lost? What terrible hand has been dealt them? Are they just too good, too spiritual, for this nasty masculine world of Eat, Shoot, Leave? Or is it simply that they work in marketing and Javier Bardem doesn’t fancy them?
Maybe what was once seen as a little girl’s fairy-story is now seen by baby-boomer women as an inalienable right. A little self-knowledge would go a long way here. But this movie is not about self-knowledge. The audience will come out of Eat Pray Love none the wiser on how to put their stuff in order. Rather, it’s all about looking beautiful and having hunks lust after you in beautiful settings, with some faded old Sixties mantras thrown in to add to that feel of quality. And there is something distasteful about the kind of pick-and-mix, magpie-like attitude to different cultures that this film shamelessly displays.
In any case travel — the modern variety anyway — increasingly narrows the mind, I find. It’s become a fetish, a manifestation of personal disquiet rather than a genuine desire to explore. Gilbert was wrong and Dorothy was right — you don’t need to go any further than your own backyard. Or try therapy, if you must.
It is, after all, very rare to come across anybody who has genuinely been changed by a stint living here or there, whatever they might claim to the contrary. Travel, in and of itself, never makes a person more interesting. A boring person’s take on their experiences will be the same whether they’re in Bali or Boston — even if they do look like Julia Roberts.