The food looks great, but the romance is undercooked, and God remains strictly a bit player in “Eat Pray Love.” While far from an unpleasant experience as it whisks Julia Roberts through Italy, India and Indonesia (tourist boards, rejoice), director Ryan Murphy’s superficial take on Elizabeth Gilbert’s phenomenally successful memoir is an exotic junk-food buffet that offers few lasting pleasures or surprises, let alone epiphanies. Sony release should do well with a sizable and underserved audience of older femmes, though Gilbert’s more discriminating readers may find themselves reaching for pillows and Pepto-Bismol by the end of this overlong voyage.
A successful New York writer racked with guilt and depression after a painful divorce, Gilbert sought recovery by spending a year abroad in pursuit of culinary pleasure, spiritual enlightenment and, though she could hardly have predicted it at the time, romantic fulfillment. Published in 2006, her account of her journey was greeted with an Oprah’s Book Club endorsement and a lengthy stint on the New York Times bestseller list; the backlash from some quarters was equally rabid, as readers derided Gilbert’s foodie excess, her New Age navel-gazing and, most unfairly, the economic privilege (her travels were financed by an advance book deal) that made her therapeutic odyssey possible.
But whatever its flaws and indulgences, Gilbert’s book is a work of honest introspection, graced with a felicitous prose style many cuts above the chick-lit norm — qualities conspicuously absent from the film, despite its best efforts to reproduce her warm, witty voice in streams of narration. Adapting an episodic self-help tome is no easy task, and as scripted by Murphy and Jennifer Salt, “Eat Pray Love” is a bloated, nearly 2 1/2-hour film with a dearth of dramatic incident. Result reps an awkward compromise between the author’s personal vignettes and the commercial imperatives of a bigscreen romance, anchored by a heroine whose resemblance to Gilbert is crushed by Roberts’ larger-than-life personality.
After being brought to her knees one night in tearful, desperate prayer, thirtysomething Liz (Roberts) decides it’s time to break things off with Stephen (Billy Crudup), her pleasant but rudderless husband of eight years. The divorce proceedings are bitterly dragged out, and not even a passionate rebound fling with a hunky younger actor (James Franco) can dispel Liz’s toxic cloud of misery.
Realizing her constant sniveling isn’t getting her anywhere (or endearing her to viewers), Liz resolves to start over and, appropriately enough for a journey of self-discovery, spend four months in each of those three “I” countries. Her whirlwind tour begins in Rome, where she learns Italian and binges on gelato and pasta (her first bite of spaghetti is so heavenly it’s set to an aria from Mozart’s “Magic Flute”); then to a Hindu ashram in India, where she cultivates the disciplines of meditation and silence; and finally to the Indonesian island of Bali, where she allows herself to be courted by swarthy Brazilian divorcee Felipe (Javier Bardem). Everyone she meets along the way turns out to be a veritable fount of folksy wisdom, whether it’s Balinese medicine man Ketut (Hadi Subiyanto, delightful) or a tough-love type Liz befriends at the ashram, the drolly named Richard From Texas (Richard Jenkins, bringing flashes of gruff wit to a comic-relief role).
Murphy, currently earning accolades as showrunner on TV smash “Glee,” has again tackled a popular memoir (after 2006’s “Running With Scissors”) with indifferent results. Largely dumping Gilbert’s eloquent, freewheeling ruminations on the nature of God, Murphy simply cherry-picks the warmest, fuzziest moments from his source material, then flattens them with sentimental beats, easy laughs and a few outright falsifications (in the film’s rejiggered history of events, Liz and Felipe actually meet cute after a car accident). Even with the usual allowances for creative latitude, there’s something unusually phony about such fudging in a movie that’s ostensibly about the quest for inner truth.
Though Roberts is nearly a decade older than Gilbert was at the time (Bardem, by contrast, is a decade too young for the 52-year-old Felipe), the actress can still hold a closeup effortlessly, and she looks terrific in a succession of Third World-chic outfits designed by Michael Dennison. But aside from a few shots of her sitting with her legs crossed, “Eat Pray Love” shows little interest in Liz’s inner life or Roberts’ ability to explore it. Instead, Murphy seems to have directed the thesp to behave like a typically shrill, snappish, self-analyzing romantic-comedy heroine, prone to throwing back her head and letting loose that inimitable Roberts cackle; when Ketut orders Liz to smile during meditation, you want to tell him not to encourage her.
Like most cinematic travelogues, the film boasts no shortage of pleasing sights and sounds, with scenic locations nicely decked out by production designer Bill Groom and lensed by d.p. Robert Richardson; editor Bradley Buecker gives the Italian food montages a deft, teasing flair. Dario Marianelli’s score provides melodious connective tissue for a soundtrack swollen with opera, Neil Young and various locale-appropriate tunes.