Thank goodness for literal titles. Otherwise I might be at a loss to ascertain just what exactly Eat Pray Love is about. Had I been without those three guiding verbs I might have suspected it to be about a forlorn earth-bound angel played by Julia Roberts who travels the world eliciting pearls of wisdom from charming impoverished locals in an effort to earn back her wings. It’s certainly the impression conveyed by the film’s director Ryan Murphy who takes great care to ensure that his ethereal star is never without her amber halo as she floats about in a soft-focus glow. Here’s Julia bathed in golden light and slurping up a pile of spaghetti in Italy. Here’s Julia bathed in golden light and meditating at an ashram in India. Here’s Julia bathed in golden light and charming a toothless medicine man in Bali.
In actuality Roberts plays not a fallen seraph but the very human Elizabeth Gilbert upon whose bestselling memoir the film is based. A successful writer Liz is plagued by nagging doubts about her life’s direction which culminate in a terrifying middle-of-the-night realization that she is in fact desperately unhappy and in need of drastic change. Being a proactive gal she takes immediate action dumping her aimless doofus of a husband (Billy Crudup) and taking up with vapid young actor (James Franco). But his chiseled features and new-age aphorisms fail to relieve her existential languor and so she opts for more drastic measures pulling up stakes entirely and embarking on a year-long sojourn abroad in which she eats prays and loves in that precise order in a quest for self-discovery.
It’s a common cliche to say that a certain city or country is a character in a film shot on location but in the case of Eat Pray Love the settings of Italy India and Bali are not only characters they’re the most interesting characters of the entire ensemble. Which says less about the talents of the film’s cinematographer Robert Richardson than it does about the failings of its director and co-writer Murphy. The lone face that manages to stand out among the lackluster crowd is the always sublime Richard Jenkins who plays an unctuous Texan encountered by Roberts’ meandering malcontent during the "pray" portion of her journey. A sort of Hindu Dr. Phil he plies Liz with plain-spoken spiritual advice that helps to finally wrest her from her malaise.
And what exactly is Liz so sad about? Certainly her old life doesn’t appear all that worth mourning a sentiment inadvertently reinforced by flashbacks to difficult moments in her life which frankly appear more awkward than painful. As far as I could tell her principal emotional burdens are: 1) guilt over her entirely reasonable decision to divorce her doofus husband and 2) regret over her other entirely reasonable decision to ditch the vapid actor who never seemed more than just a brisk rebound fling.
If there’s more to Liz than just a pleasant mildly interesting girl faced a few tricky but eminently solvable issues Murphy isn’t able to convey it. (He does however succeed in finding a dozen different ways to photograph a bowl of spaghetti which I suppose is a kind of accomplishment.) Liz’s journey in Eat Pray Love never feels like more than just a lovely vacation the kind of thing usually commemorated in a Facebook photo album to be perused for a few minutes or so certainly not in a massively expensive (an exact budget number is suspiciously difficult to find) enormously tedious two-hour travelogue.
Each year thousands of lovelorn women flock to Verona Italy the hometown of Shakespeare’s Juliet to solicit romantic advice from the tragic heroine. They deposit their pleading letters on a wall near the balcony where Romeo supposedly made his famous late-night visit and if they’re lucky receive a reply from one of Juliet’s crew of officially appointed ghostwriters known as the Secretaries of Juliet.
In Gary Winnick's Letters to Juliet young Sophie (the irresistible Amanda Seyfried) while working on a sort of temp assignment with the Secretaries winds up leading an elderly British widow (Vanessa Redgrave) on a quest to reunite her with the Italian boyfriend she abruptly — and regretfully — jilted nearly 50 years prior. It’s a contrived and far-fetched scenario to be sure but no more so than your average Hollywood rom-com and this one at least carries the pleasant side benefit of allowing the filmmakers to set most of the action in picturesque Verona where Seyfried and Redgrave traverse the countryside on their quixotic endeavor.
The charming mother-daughter dynamic that forms between Seyfried’s doe-eyed do-gooder and Redgrave’s wistful grandma carries Letters to Juliet and make its preposterous and unapologetically schmaltzy plot palpable. But their efforts are largely sabotaged by the mediocre men of Juliet Gael Garcia Bernal (Babel The Motorcycle Diaries) and Christopher Egan (Eragon TV's Kings).
The usually terrific Garcia Bernal is really more of a prop than a character in this film. As Seyfried’s future ex-fiance an ADD-addled restaurateur too preoccupied with procuring ingredients for his new menu to tend to his relationship he replays the same scene over and over as if in some sort of Twilight Zone sketch. His intended replacement played by Egan is an insufferable twit we’re meant to believe is some sort of hot-shot human rights lawyer back in his native England — a detail I wouldn’t believe if he held up his law school degree to the camera for us to see.
Equally incredulous is the romantic subplot that develops between him and Seyfried and when the story shifts to them the film rapidly loses steam. Male characters will always play second fiddle in a chick flick — even one written and directed by men — but in Letters to Juliet they’re almost an afterthought seemingly tossed in late in the game to bolster the film’s appeal to young female moviegoers. In the end even someone as talented as Seyfried can’t effectively sell us on her character's eventual pair-up with Egan’s whiny doofus no matter how loudly the Taylor Swift soundtrack presses her case.