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.
Poor Donna Keppel (Brittany Snow). Some years back her parents and brother were slaughtered by Richard Fenton (Jonathan Schaech) a teacher who had developed a psychotic fixation on her. Richard went to an insane asylum but he broke out and now he’s back in town just in time for Prom Night where he resumes his pursuit of Donna and knocks off some of her friends for good measure. Bringing up the rear is dogged Detective Winn (Idris Elba) desperately trying to nail Fenton as the body count mounts. Sooner or later--and it’s much later unfortunately--Donna will come face to face with Fenton one last time. With characters as one-dimensional and dumb as these there’s not much the cast can do except stand around in their prom outfits waiting to get killed off. As the deranged killer Schaech stares glares and skulks around. Leading lady Snow widens her eyes and worries accordingly throughout while Elba tries to inject a little intensity into the stock role of the cop on the case. Working from a bad screenplay by J.S. Cardone first-time helmer Nelson McCormick displays little enthusiasm--either for the genre or for this particular film. The scare tactics are hackneyed and usually involve characters surprising each other--a gag that gets really old really quickly. When one character mutters “This is getting silly. Enough already ” we couldn’t agree more. And we’d add “boring” to that statement. It should be noted however that there’s an awfully high body count for a film rated PG-13 even if the film isn’t as bloody as one might expect. McCormick and Cardone have re-teamed on the upcoming remake of The Stepfather and if their collaboration here is any indication horror fans may have reason to be afraid--very afraid.
Based on James Bradley’s bestselling book of the same name Flags of Our Fathers is Saving Private Ryan meets Stand By Me. Buried in the collective national conscious the Associated Press photo of six American soldiers raising a flag of victory over Iwo Jima is the basis of the film. Bradley’s father Doc Bradley (played by Ryan Phillippe in the film) who was one of the flag-raising soldiers never fully shared the details of the experience with his son but Flags meditates on some of those unanswered questions. The Iwo Jima conflict fortified by crags of Japanese snipers lays siege to thousands of messy casualties and the tattered flag--immediately seized by U.S. government officials to rallying and recruit soldiers--emerges as a symbol for American pride while the five Marines and one corpsman who raised it are basically forgotten. Heavy dramatics are saved for Adam Beach (Windtalkers) as Ira Hayes the Native American Marine who degenerates into madness. He represents the bittersweet languor of lost ambition and broken spirits. Director Clint Eastwood is actually the film’s best actor even though he isn’t in the movie. We can see his simmering restraint in the Flags’ acting ensemble as he guides his actors into finely tuned performances. From Beach to Phillippe to Paul Walker (2 Fast 2 Furious) Eastwood gets the most out of his young cast by playing them down. Similar to real-life soldiers allegiance to the team is the actors’ goal creating authenticity. Intense stress requires the actors to have genuine instincts. But by intentionally constructing a more lived-in feel there is consequently no flashy or Oscar-worthy stand-outs. To his credit Walker who usually goes for the brain-dead million dollar paychecks tries something different here while in his pivotal role Beach plays the juicy role as best as he can. Still Beach’s breakdown scene is quite honestly one-dimensional and doesn’t have the same dramatic impact as say Born on the Fourth of July’s Tom Cruise. Of Flags’ likely award recognitions the acting seems to have the least chance of reaching the winner’s circle. Vintage Eastwood is a lion in winter directing as though there’s no tomorrow. With Flags he interweaves numerous themes to create a war movie which despite its cliché-filled genre is constantly real in tone. The film is historically credible from the American perspective only but Eastwood has also directed a companion piece Letters from Iwo Jima about the Japanese side which hits theaters next year. Complex themes of celebrity worship also give the film a post-modern jaded Iraq War-era vision. Then there are the visuals. Eastwood incorporates breathtaking CGI shots of the fleet of warships reminiscent of Troy on top of an old-style photographic framing black and white and green all washed-out. It’s like looking at a scrapbook of old photos on a high-definition CD-ROM. Naturalistic scenes--sprawling in their panoramic framing with cactuses and hills of black sand--remind us we’re watching one of America’s cinematic icons at work. Flags could be Eastwood’s third Best Director Oscar--and will likely net him $100 million-plus at the box office.