(Columbia) Julia Roberts, Javier Bardem, Viola Davis, Richard Jenkins, Billy Crudup, James Franco, Tuva Novotny, Luca Argentero, Giuseppe Gandini, Rushita Singh, Hadi Subiyanto, Christine Hakim, Anakia Lapae, Arlene Tur. Directed by Ryan Murphy
Most of us, at one time or another, undergo a rigorous self-examination of the soul, one usually brought on by some kind of crisis. We are forced to face our own deficiencies, define who we are and compare ourselves to who we need to be. Most of us must do us all by our own lonesome; some of us use the benefit of a therapist. Others take a different route.
Liz Gilbert (Roberts) is a successful freelance writer who’s married, lives in a great apartment in Manhattan and is surrounded by a coterie of friends and admirers. Of course, this means she’s absolutely miserable. Her husband Stephen (Crudup) is a bit of a self-involved dweeble, perpetually trying new careers in an effort to find something that’ll stick. He has announced that he is going back to school to get his masters, just as Liz is looking forward to spending some time in Aruba. When he asserts “I don’t wanna go to Aruba,” she replies tearfully “I don’t want to be married.”
Stephen contests the divorce and doesn’t want to let go. Liz does what any sensible woman just getting out of a marriage to a decent enough guy that she was miserable in – she leaps into the bed of David (Franco), an off-Broadway actor who has adopted Eastern philosophies and follows an Indian guru. He is just as superficial as Stephen is, and Liz decides to leave on a year-long journey of to find out who she is since she feels numb inside, as she tells her best friend Delia (Davis). Of course, it doesn’t hurt that despite being cleaned out in the divorce, her publisher paid for the trip with an advance on the book that Liz would eventually write (a fact not mentioned in the movie).
Her first stop is Rome, where she meets Sofi (Tuvotny), a Swedish ex-pat; Giovanni (Argentero), Sofi’s Italian boyfriend and Luca Spaghetti (Gandini), who claims his family invented the namesake pasta. Here, she dives headfirst into Italian cuisine, from Neapolitan pizza to Roman pasta to gelato and everything in between. She eats without feeling guilty, launching herself into La dolce far niente – the sweetness of doing nothing. Check.
From there, she goes to the ashram of the Indian guru that David follows. Here, she meets Richard (Jenkins), a garrulous Texan who, as she puts it, speaks in bumper stickers. He chides her into finding a way to meditate despite the attacks of mosquitoes and an inability to clear her mind. He calls her “Groceries” because of her appetite and the two wind up being pretty good friends, enough so that Richard confesses to her the reason he’s there in one of the movie’s more compelling scenes.
She also befriends a young girl (Singh) who is about to enter an arranged marriage, which troubles the both of them. Eventually she gets with the program, but Liz not so much, the wedding reminding her inevitably of her own. Eventually, she finds some inner peace. Check.
After that, it’s off to Indonesia – Bali to you and me – to meet up with the medicine man Ketut (Subiyanto) whom she met a year earlier and predicted that she would be back to teach him English. She stays in the area, translating old parchments for him in the mornings and exploring Bali in the afternoons. It is here that she meets Phillipe (Bardem), a Brazilian ex-pat who runs an import business. The two begin to fall for each other, but Liz doesn’t need a man anymore – does she?
This is based on the New York Times bestseller, and it’s appeal to women can be measured by its appearance on Oprah (the daytime talk diva devoted two entire shows to the book) and the number of women in the audience at the movie, which was roughly about 80%. There is certainly an empowering element to the book and the movie, which teaches women that they need to find fulfillment from within.
At least, that’s the message I think is intended, but the movie doesn’t really bring that across so much. Most of the wisdom that Liz arrives at comes from others, be it the irascible Texan in India, or the gentle healer in Bali. She seems to bring little to the table internally other than a penchant for whining about how unfulfilled she is.
I don’t know the author personally so I can’t guess at how accurate the portrayal of her is. I’m sure she couldn’t have been disappointed to have Roberts, one of the most beautiful women on Earth, playing her. Roberts is a fair actress in her own right, as Erin Brockovich conclusively showed, but this won’t be measured as one of her finer performances. To be fair, it can’t be easy to portray someone whose chief trait seems to be inner emptiness but you never get a sense of that emptiness being filled in a significant way. Perhaps that’s a subtlety I overlooked.
She is also matched with two of the best actors in the world in Bardem and Jenkins, and neither one disappoint. Jenkins’ rooftop soliloquy in the Indian portion alone may win him Oscar consideration for Best Supporting Actor, if Academy members remember that far back come voting time this winter. Bardem plays a wounded divorcee who desperately loves his children, but is terrified of getting his heart broken again.
Murphy crafts a very slick, good-looking movie that runs a very long time – I was definitely shifting in my seat right around the India sequence – and doesn’t have as much depth as it purports to. As Liz accuses Richard of speaking in bumper stickers, so is the movie a series of motivational posters of cats hanging from ledges and eagles gliding into sunsets. There is nothing truly profound here, other than the simple advice not to worry so much about what you eat, find balance in your life, and then find a hot Brazilian to fool around with. Sage advice all, but especially for those who can afford to take a year off and embark on an all-expenses paid journey of self-discovery. Most of us don’t get that kind of opportunity.
The secret to finding self-realization is to look inward. You’re simply not going to find it in a book or a movie, although those desperate enough will look in those places first. As Richard says repeatedly to Liz (repetition is a theme in the movie), you have to do the work. Nothing comes easy in this life, not even something simple like a plate of spaghetti. Realizing that is the first step towards wisdom.
REASONS TO GO: Bardem and Jenkins are two of the best actors working and are worth seeing in their roles. Gorgeous cinematography makes this worth checking out.
REASONS TO STAY: Spiritual aspects are a bit hazy. Quite frankly, this seems quite self-indulgent and new age-y.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sexuality and occasionally bad language, as well as a bare male derriere; otherwise, it’s suitable for teens and above.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Murphy is responsible for creating the hit Fox Network show “Glee.”
HOME OR THEATER: There is some beautiful cinematography here, but not the sweeping majesty that would compel home viewing.
FINAL RATING: 5/10