Friday, August 13, 2010

Reel Thoughts: Gag Yawn Snooze

It finally happened. I finally understand the abject agony straight, football-loving men feel when their girlfriends drag them to 27 Dresses, Made of Honor or Sex and the City 2.

I have survived Eat Pray Love, Julia Roberts' seemingly endless cinematic version of Elizabeth Gilbert’s globe-trotting book, but I’m pretty sure I aged seven years and gained a funky white streak in my hair like JoBeth Williams at the end of Poltergeist. How could Ryan Murphy, the creator of Glee (not to mention co-writer, actress Jennifer Salt of the 1972 Gargoyles!), and Roberts, one of the most magnetic actresses of our time, unleash such an excruciating, self-indulgent trudge through one not-at-all-interesting woman’s year-long quest to “find herself”?

The simple answer is that this is one book that never should have been made into a movie. I’m sure Liz Gilbert the person is a complex, relatable woman who struggled with real, soul-crushing lack of fulfillment, but that isn’t who ends up on the screen. Murphy and company’s abysmal script takes you places you don’t want to go with a bunch of people you don’t want to know … for two and a half hours!

As the movie opens, Liz Gilbert (Roberts) has it all — she’s married to a pod version of Billy Crudup, is best friends with Doubt’s Viola Davis (and a lump of bald flesh playing Viola’s husband), and travels the world writing inspirational stories while living it up in New York City. Crudup’s Stephen is a directionless dweeb, and when he tells Liz he doesn’t want to go to Aruba with her, she tells him she doesn’t want to be married. She embarks on an affair with James Franco, playing a Joey Tribbiani-type actor who starred in her awful play. We go through another draggy relationship trauma before Liz decides to head off to Italy (to Eat), India (to Pray) and Bali (to Love, although she’s got self-love down pretty well already).

In Italy, she meets a “colorful” group of friends straight out of a Carnival Cruise Line catalogue (who are just about as deep) and devotes herself to eating everything she can get her hands on. Don’t look for the “It’s my ‘No Carb Left Behind” diet” line — part of the sloppiness of the movie is that it feels like they filmed about thirty-four hours of people not doing much and just randomly selected vignettes to throw up on the screen. Did Liz really need to go to Italy to learn that Italians talk with their hands? Really? As far as a love letter to the joys of food goes, Julie & Julia was there first and did it much better.

For no particular reason, Liz packs up and heads to “picturesque” India, meaning that we see her drive through lots of horrid poverty that she promptly forgets about. This is the part of the film I call "The Black Hole of Calcutta". If you have any lists to prepare, paint swatches to choose or quantum physics equations to solve, this would be a good time to do that.

Otherwise, you’ll be subjected to Oscar-nominee Richard Jenkins play "Richard from Texas", a sour-milk version of his character from The Visitor. Liz didn’t seem that into Buddhism when David dragged her to his cult-y ashram in New York, but here she is, seeking enlightenment from his guru who, oops, is in New York. What travel writer doesn’t plan better than that? Liz and Richard (who’s kind of a dick) bicker and he spouts all manner of clich├ęs and you feel like you’re stuck there longer than the four months that elapse. You’ll definitely pray for deliverance around this time, but sadly, you know that there’s a whole other third of a year to get through.

Off to Bali Liz goes, where she reconnects with a seventh-generation medicine man who gave her the idea for her quest in the beginning. Sometime around the two-hour mark, Javier Bardem shows up and runs a bike-riding Liz off the road. The set-up to that dust-up shows them each heading toward each other for what seems like five minutes — please, is there an editor in the house?! Of course, the way to a self-absorbed New Yorker’s heart is through her gashed knee, so the two fall into a passionate love affair.

Can Liz let herself love someone other than herself? I won’t say, but I will say “Thank God for Javier Bardem!” By sheer charisma alone, he brings what little life exists in Eat Pray Love, and he and Roberts share a light, fun-to-watch chemistry. Sadly, you’re so weary by that time, you’ll swear you have jet lag.

What went wrong with Eat Pray Love? It’s shorter to answer, “What went right?” because precious little does. Seldom have so many good actors, writers, the director and production designers worked so hard for such meager results. Despite Julia’s best efforts, Liz is an ungrateful pill. Her friends are tedious and there’s an unpleasant condescension about all the places Liz goes and the people that she meets. Now maybe they should have sent 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon on the quest and let Tina Fey write the script. That premise alone makes me laugh more than I did watching Eat Pray Love.

At the screening I attended, a man passed out and fell over right after India. Every other man in the audience (and quite a few women, I bet) wished they were him (after insuring that the man was okay, of course). I enjoyed the critically-reviled Sex and the City 2, and let me tell you, I wished I were back in Abu Dhabi with the gals, having all the fun that’s missing from this mess.

UPDATE: Eat Pray Love is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from

Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.

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