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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Eat Pray Love (review)

Heroine’s Journey

There’s something ridiculously and deeply sad about what Eat Pray Love reveals about the deprived lives American women lead. Yes, Julia Roberts’ confused, soul-searching writer is a wealthy woman with the financial wherewithal to take a year off and travel the world in order to find herself, and the decadent luxury of being able to do that is something I, like most folks, can scarcely imagine. (Fantasize about? Absolutely. But hold it in my hopes as something I might actually ever realize? Not at all.) But her deprivation is nothing that her money can cure, and something that many, many women can identify with: she denies herself. And she denies her self. And she wants to change that.
Magically, there’s very little sense of petulant privilege in Eat Pray Love, which almost seemed as if it had to be inevitable, given the scenario. Perhaps it’s because — the cost of globetrotting aside — Liz Gilbert neither seeks out nor finds herself through the spending of money nor the acquisition of things. (The similarly themed Sex and the City 2, earlier this summer, was so infuriating precisely because it was all about spending as much money as possible in as short a period of time on the most useless of crap, and its clueless heroines never understood why they still weren’t happy afterward.) There’s no “poor little rich girl” pouting here from Roberts, who is achingly poignant as a woman on a journey few women onscreen get to take, and no smug glow of affluent arrogance in how director Ryan Murphy follows her on that journey, even as it takes her from Rome to an ashram in India to Bali.

I haven’t read the memoir by the actual Elizabeth Gilbert [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] — as distinguished from the character of the same name Roberts portray here — but now I can guess why it has been so popular: because lots of women see themselves in Gilbert’s life. Money and wealth have nothing to do with whether a gal has given over her life to pleasing men and accommodating their needs, as Roberts’ (Valentine’s Day, Duplicity) Liz comes to realize about herself, edging close to a breakdown when she finally acknowledges to herself that the comfortable life she has with her sweet but unpredictable husband (Billy Crudup: Public Enemies, Watchmen) isn’t enough for her… and then she falls instantly into a new romance with a much younger actor (James Franco: Date Night, Milk), until she admits to herself that this isn’t enough, either, even though she does love him.

This is an absolutely astonishing place for a mainstream movie to go, to concede that No, having a man is not, cannot be the extent of a woman’s ambitions. And when Liz chucks her life in New York and heads to Italy, there is a marvelous, almost pornographic reveling in her aloneness as she wanders the streets of Rome and eats at sidewalk cafes by herself. She makes new friends, of course, but while she happily develops a warm camaraderie with them, she maintains her romantic distance in a way that is precisely the opposite of what we’ve been trained by Hollywood to expect. There’s an almost shocking moment when she is saying good-night to the handsome young tutor who has been teaching her Italian: they approach the door to her little rented house and it’s the point where, in any other movie, she’d be inviting him in or at least indulging in a long, sexy smooch… and she just smiles and wishes him good evening. It’s wonderful.

There’s understanding here, too, of the constraints women put themselves under, but without reinforcing them, which is ironic, because Hollywood is a major source of these self-imposed constraints. It’s with a sort of naughty, indulgent glee that Roberts’ Liz digs into a plate of pasta or noshes down on Napoli pizza, enjoying food and the senuous pleasure of eating without guilt and without worrying about how “fat” it’s going to make her. Murphy (Running with Scissors) doesn’t scold Liz for indulging, or even turn it into an act that is indeed naughty — he just lets her be to enjoy her newfound freedom. Here is one of the places where the sad comes in: Eating good food and enjoying it without guilt would seem to be such a simple thing, such a basic part of living a full life, but Liz hasn’t let herself do that before.

This isn’t a perfect film, not at all. It might have been nice if, in the scene in which Liz has to buy new “fat” jeans, she looked like she genuinely needed them. (Roberts has talked about how she gained 10 pounds for the Rome segments, but she honestly looks exactly as gorgeous and slender as she always does.) Once Liz heads to the ashram in India, and is so miserable there, I wanted to smack her and tell her that the only reason she’s there at all is because this was someplace that interested the actor boyfriend; if she had any authentic interest herself, we never learn that. (Perhaps the script, by Murphy and Jennifer Salt, omits something from the book. Perhaps Gilbert herself never realized this.)

The ashram isn’t a total bust for Liz: she meets Richard from Texas (the always lovely Richard Jenkins: Dear John, Burn After Reading), a pain in the ass who puts her self-pity into perspective and gives her the impetus to make new discoveries about herself (like how to let some things go). And then it’s on to Bali, where she finds new romance with Javier Bardem (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Love in the Time of Cholera).

So, yeah — and damn — Liz’s journey does eventually come back to romance. But at least it no longer seems to be her only goal in life. It’s a step in the right direction for her, and for Hollywood.

MPAA: rated PG-13 on appeal for brief strong language, some sexual references and male rear nudity

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine
  • Interesting. I didn’t go to the screenings because I was afraid of the same things you were afraid of, re: a rich white person whining about their life, and then “finding themselves” through a boring romance and expensive indulgences. And I also find the concept of “indulging” and “guilty pleasure” aggravating in and of itself (well, okay, the latter seems less loaded when it refers to cheesy B-movies). The idea that you have to forgive yourself for every iota of happiness you dare to partake in is a horrible, imprisoning idea.

    If it shows up in the DVDTalk screener pool I will consider giving it a whirl.

  • Isobel

    I enjoyed the book and was very nervous about it being Hollywood-ised into some unrecognisable hell. It sounds pretty much like it’s kept the spirit of the book intact, so I’m really looking forward to it now.

    As I remember it, although Elizabeth Gilbert did have enough money to do the year, it was a case of throwing every last penny at it (she sold her house? Something like that) and keeping it as cheap as possible, so the book was quite shoe-string. I’m glad they haven’t upped the budget for the film.

  • bronxbee

    the character in the movie definitely keeps it “on the cheap”… the apartment in rome is positively terrifying to someone (me) used to running hot water and a ceiling that isn’t held up by scaffolding (although, hey — come to think of it, my ceiling *is* falling down in my apartment)… and she definitely uses whatever money she has to enjoy the pleasures of life… i was pleasantly surprised by the movie in that way (and several others).

  • I got to speak with Elizabeth Gilbert for a feature article I was writing. She was lovely and the main reason why I am seeing this movie. By the way, the trip was financed by a writer’s advance, not her personal wealth, I’m not sure if the movie mentions that.

  • bronxbee

    no… no mention was made of *how* she financed it, actually. viola davis’ character is obviously her editor or agent or something, but she isn’t seen giving her money. that must have been a nice advance.

  • Kevin

    director Ryan Gilbert

    I think you mean Ryan Murphy. :)

  • Matt C

    (Roberts has talked about how she gained 10 pounds for the Rome segments, but she honestly looks exactly as gorgeous and slender as she always does.)

    As someone who spent most of his earlier vacation walking around on foot, traveling around a lot burns a lot of calories. Especially if you’re walking most of the time.

    They probably shot the Rome segments last and no one noticed her weight gain. *shrug*

  • MaryAnn

    I think you mean Ryan Murphy. :)

    Yup. Momentary brain fart. Fixed it.

    no… no mention was made of *how* she financed it, actually. viola davis’ character is obviously her editor or agent or something, but she isn’t seen giving her money. that must have been a nice advance.

    Still and all, even living on the cheap and not working while traveling takes money. Not everyone has the ability to do that. And of course many women who likely see themselves in this are tied down by husbands and kids and jobs that, even if they love their families and their work, can still be something you might want to escape from, if only for a little while. Even that is out of the question for some women. So I can see how this book might have been a substitute for that. (I’m gonna have to read it now!)

  • I_Sell_Books

    I’m glad the movie does the book justice. I’ll be happy to watch it if it comes my way.

  • Wow. Wasn’t expecting a positive review. Yay pleasant surprises!

  • Tyler

    Ahhhh Feminist-Narcissists, where can the human species and Hollywood take us next? I can hardly wait!


  • @Tyler: so, i suppose those movies like “Razor’s Edge” or even “The Matrix” where some man looks for an awakening of his spirit, or living a full and examined life are also narcissitic and meet with your disapproval?

  • Lady Tenar

    Could it be? A film that portrays women as strong and independent and also stars Julia Roberts? I’m surprised the universe hasn’t unmade itself as a result. I am intrigued.

    @Tyler-Oh my God, just go away. Don’t you have anything better to do than harass film critics for liking a movie based on values that you don’t share? Get a life.

  • mortadella

    You think Tyler’s bad….go to Rotten Tomatoes. More than a few critics described Julia Roberts character as selfish. After all, she had the chance to be in relationships with men, but decided she needed something MORE. Bitch. ;)

  • Daniel

    This movie equates to Julia Roberts prancing around the world bumping into great looking men while she discovers herself. All these men are ciphers, pretty blank slates upon which she can pour her desires… It’s essentially the same as Scott Pilgram with the female/male roles reversed. I want some consistency!

  • Isobel

    Ah, I’ve always really liked Julia Roberts despite the heaps of scorn that have been piled on me as a result. I’m glad she’s getting roles like these now.

  • @Daniel: the comparison is apples and oranges… the character of liz realizes she has been losing herself by adapting the character and interests of the men she chooses to love. there are several male characters in the movie with whom she does *not* have a sexual or romantic relationship. i don’t want to give away spoilers or say too much about the plot but i can say that “finding” or fighting for a man is not a major part of it. and if anything, the men in the movie pour *their* desires and stories out on her. perhaps *seeing* the movie would be an advantage for you in aide of discussion.

  • Steve


    After a couple hundred years of *male* narcissists, it was time to move on to the next thing.

    And I say this as a male narcissist myself =P

  • Wasn’t interested by the trailer, but judging by your review, it seems like it could have a good message. It’s a theme that the a lot of films have dealt with: the attempt to discover what a person really enjoys and from which he or she derives happiness. It’s a shame that American capitalism has made us think that money is what makes us happy. That’s why these themes are explored in the first place. Revolutionary Road is the closest comparison that can be made. That film was really powerful (even with its flaws) because it presented the flip side of Eat, Pray, Love that people have pointed out: a lot of people are not able to explore themselves because of their individual situations.

    Again, it’s a real shame that our society still perpetuates the ridiculous notion of the necessity of wealth, marriage, and 2.5 kids – “the American Dream.” If you’re lucky enough to find what makes you happy, then go for it and ignore the rest. And if, for a woman, that legitimately includes being in love with a man, as the main character in Eat, Pray, Love appears to discover, then who really has the right to say that she’s wrong?

  • timed

    Groan. Yes, the writing is so astonishing for a movie that is catering to women to ‘go there’ – to have the sympathetic female character have her choice of multiple sensitive, handsome, adoring male suitors – and then reject them!

    Yes, so daring! It’s painful to read a critic write like this is a ‘step’ in the right direction. No, please – this is the WORST pandering! This is wish fulfillment! She is the center of attention and desire, she is in full control. This is not female weakness, this is female power! This is where a movie about a woman finding herself could END!

    It’s all contrivance, just nonsense. Evidence that this is how to see it, and NOT that it is a baby step towards the screenwriter glimpsing the Bold Truth that women don’t need a man (gasp!) is that she rejects these beautiful doting men only to find another beautiful, doting man that SHE wants.

    She starts with a man, and then ends with one. Independence is just a comma, a rest between romance for her.

    This is the WHOLE point of this movie and the book, of course. It’s Eat, Pray, Love – not Eat, Pray. And the Love is not just self-love – because she’s already in love with herself. Oh, I know, not ‘really’ accepting of herself, etc, etc.

    Women, not men, want to see movies about women ending up in a relationship. It’s sad but true. Sex and the City had to end with Mr. Big and Carrie marrying.

    We constantly hear about how girls should be able to just live it up and be flirty and casual bed-hoppers like men if they wish – but the inane shallowness of the show just feels … pathetic if that’s how they end up. It’s fun if it’s temporary.

    It’s not men who force female storylines into princess endings. A woman wrote the novel it’s based on, and an ultra-powerful woman starred in the movie and could have changed the ending if she wanted to.
    Women went to see it, too. Women want the storybook ending. Yes, yes – independence is fine and dandy, but the best ending is romance.

    It’s weird, but that’s the way it seems to be. Don’t ask me why. It’s a woman thing. Just don’t pretend that the movie is being daring when, for a single, literal breath of time, shows the female character as not seeking romance, when you know DAMN WELL the entire point of this genre is wish fulfillment. Julia Roberts is America’s princess, starting with Pretty Woman. The casting is glaringly obvious and you are being either obtuse or disingenuous in your writing to suggest otherwise.

    For goodness sake! It’s Julia Roberts! The whole point of the silly movie is contrive a way to get her to smile her famous smile and laugh, and fall in radiant love! Silly critic!

  • MaryAnn

    This movie would have fulfilled my wishes if Liz had not ended up with the Bardem character, or if at least the film had left it openended: Does she go with him, or not?

    I am a woman, and I would like to see at least as many movies about women not ending up in relationships as movies that do end that way.

  • Sara

    After watching the movie, Inception, for 25 minutes, I had to get away from (to me) that junk that is so much same ole, same ole. I know (probable collective gasp from most of you.) I went on a search in the large movie complex for another movie.

    Got to Eat, Pray, Love just as it was beginning. What a relief to get away from the other. Yes, a bit in the way of Liz, leaving one unsatisfying thing and looking for another. A woman—getting up=== alone— and leaving a theatre, walking around the complex in search for one she’d rather see for her $10.

    While not flashy with special effects that we’ve come addicted to, I thought this movie was good—hadn’t read the book, knew nothing about it. Marriage is an institution (and one created by males) and most institutions aren’t kind to people (especially females)—Liz’s frustration with her emotional life is probably in line with that of many women. And she didn’t focus on that alone. She had a thriving career.
    A career woman who wouldn’t “settle” in her relationships with men, yet she had grown up in a culture that tells her (from parents, to movies, to literature, you name it) that she should—as we all do. Yet she didn’t “settle” nor act out in hysterical or passive ways. What a novel idea. The woman took action. Good. So, she ends up with a man. So what? They split their time between Bali and NYC. Check out the latest book (Committed) which is for skeptics re: traditional “married” relationships.

  • timed

    We know that Julia needs to struggle with her newfound independence because that makes the world’s most successful actress sympathetic and vulnerable to the women watching. That’s the whole point. Only then will our fledgling be able to dig deep and bravely find true love, in a way that satisfies her like never before. Romance! Cut to The Teeth, The Grin. Cue: The Cackle. End.

    Now think about the book for a moment. The real Liz left her husband and child (after SHE had an affair), and then she had her employer pay her way to visit exotic locales where she plans (!) to write about how she will have a spiritual awakening, ie how not to be selfish!!! It mocks itself.

    Liz really isn’t so different from Carrie in Sex and the City, actually. Liz knows she is going to get her agape on; she’s got the advance, the 3 city tour, her arc is sketched out ahead of time (just like in real life, God can always be found on your own terms – that’s part of every ‘wisdom-tradition.’)

    Liz has commodified her Deepest Self just as much as Carrie has. Thankfully, she doesn’t have to edit any part of her hip lifestyle. Back to sex with an adoring, beautiful man. NOW she’s ready for it, whew.

    “Gee, Liz is able to be self-deprecating at just the right moment in order to deflate her self-centeredness, it’s all so charming. She’s so … zzz.” Exhausting, it’s so clever. Precious.

  • Sara

    I walked into the movie, knowing nothing about it and not having read the book—not knowing there is even a book called Eat, Pray and Love. So my comments and reactions above the comments by timed were based on the movie. Alone.

    I did come home and looked up info online. Saw about her new book—Committed—for the skeptic about marriage. Anyone a skeptic about that institution? I’d say Committed might be a good read because skepticism about the institution of marriage is warranted. Maybe Liz, the writer, had found out some things the Carrie Bradshaw never learned.

  • Boston B

    Liz received a $200,000 advancement to do this project. So her entire trip was funded for the sole purpose of writing the book. I hated the book beyond comprehension and will never, ever see this film.

  • Sara

    Are you kidding me? A woman (gasp) gets an advance of 200,000 (not a whopping sum for a year actually) to go on an adventure alone to three different countries in search of whatever she might find (and then with the agreement that she write about whatever those experiences are.) How shocking! She should have turned it down and stayed ensconced in the parameters our culture sets for us?

    You’ll miss a good movie, but, Boston B, with your disgust, you would certainly hate it—a woman goes off alone and who knows what she will experience. She is to write about whatever that is. So? How exactly is this a problem?

    Did anyone note that plastered on CNN yesterday (Sunday, August 15) was an entire series devoted to how Eat, Pray and Love “might make” women decide to up and do their own thing, that they might travel “alone”? (doublt gasp) CNN warned that this was very very dangerous. What the heck it that about? Even if you’re given 200,000 dollars in advance to do what Liz did (according to CNN) is highly “dangerous” for a “woman” to do. Give me a friggin’ break.

  • I thought this was a good movie to meditate to. I often like to meditate in cool, dark places, with plenty of popcorn. Sometimes I have a hard time telling if I am “meditating” or sleeping, however.

  • Bella14

    Thank you for this article, I am glad you saw the movie without reading the book, so I can learn what the movie is like without the book as a lens -as it were.

    I read the book a couple of years ago and found it very refreshing. Women these days get fed a diet of shoes, clothes, cocktails, and men in books and movies- Liz Gilbert was the first in a while to write in a style that wasn’t superficial and it hit me on an intellectual level. Why not explore themes of spirituality and expectation, and study what happens to a woman when she follows a path she thinks is right for her only to find herself trapped? People get upset that Liz had the means to travel a year- I think she was so stuck she would have gone anyway even without a book deal, the fact is she needed to go and explore. Not all of us would have the guts, so kudos to her for doing it for us.

    There is an element of “I’m kind of too perfect and too warm for things to go TOO badly for me” in her book, espec in the third part (Love) and casting Julia Roberts to play this part makes me feel a bit odd because she is the one actress in Hollywood today who gives this off too. Even the trailer seems overwhelmingly smug. But it looks visually stunning, and it may be a movie to watch at home, where I can fast-forward the smug parts.


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