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.