One of the necessary elements for a movie like Eat Pray Love is character sympathy. It generally helps any movie when audiences can relate to the protagonist. When viewers strip away all of the superficialities – like profession, attire and setting – they’re left with the human experience that ties people together. It’s this core similarity between strangers that allows viewers to relate to the characters in medical and law dramas even though 99% of the population is not a doctor or a lawyer. It comes down to character choices, which is precisely what makes Eat Pray Love so hard to watch despite its excellent cast, competent direction and exotic locales.
Liz Gilbert (Julia Roberts) is a successful book author. When the movie begins, she’s in Bali speaking to a ninth generation medicine man for help with her love life. He reads her palm and foretells that Liz will remarry. This prediction has her scrutinizing her current husband, Stephen (Billy Crudup), who is seemingly directionless and bounces from career to career. One night, Liz decides she’s tired of being married, separates from Stephen and enters an ill-advised, but exciting romance with a young actor (James Franco). When he, too, fails to stoke Liz’s passion for life, she takes matters into her own hands and decides to travel to Italy to experience the food, visit India to pray with a guru and then return to Bali to fulfill the last prediction of the medicine man, which was that she would return. The journey for Liz is both external and internal as she strives to find peace, balance and love.
Eat Pray Love is based on the book by the same name and if it were not for the source material audiences would more than likely find the film’s story a little repulsive. There’s not much about Liz to like as she’s presented in the film. She’s married to a seemingly great guy, but inexplicably wants to divorce him. The audience assumes a history of general lack of follow through on his part, but won’t feel that that’s enough evidence to divorce him. When it comes time for mediation, Liz comes off as extremely selfish as Stephen tries to save the marriage by raising excellent points that go unanswered, like the fact that Liz never expressed her disappointment and allow Stephen to correct his behavior. By the end of the exchange, Liz’s one complaint that Stephen can’t choose one dream and stick with it looks absolutely absurd, especially when his heartbreaking reply is, “OK, I choose one. I choose you.”
So the audience is supposed to root for a woman who blindsided her husband with her pent up emotions and destroyed his life with a divorce and cheer her on as she jumps into the sack with a younger man before the signatures are dry on the divorce papers. Then when the new relationship doesn’t work, through no real fault on the guy’s part, viewers are supposed to sympathize with Liz when she takes a lavish, year-long vacation in beautiful places like Italy and Bali when most people are spending their weekends looking for a second, third or first job to make ends meet.
The fact that Liz’s trip is one extended self-help, self-discovery excursion makes the film that much more unpalatable since Liz is presented as being of an age where self-discovery really should have happened a decade ago. And if she hadn’t discovered herself yet, bringing someone else into her life and binding them with a lifelong contract like marriage can only be seen as reckless behavior. It’s easy to relate to a character that makes a poor decision. It’s hard to relate to a character that is rewarded for that poor decision.
Eat Pray Love will, of course, appeal to the female demographic, especially those that are in boring relationships and dream of escaping to another country to meet a handsome stranger. Most of the men in this film are impressively good looking and sensitive in ways that defy reality. One man calls his adult son “darling”, kisses him on the lips goodbye and weeps when he leaves. Surprisingly, the men are the best parts of the film since they seem to know themselves very well and their genuineness is truly moving.
The film looks great and the filmmakers generally let the scenery do the heavy lifting, which isn’t a bad thing when the lush fields of Bali or the aged buildings of Rome are the backdrop. The only time the camera ever feels present is during some quick editing in India to convey the hectic society, but overall the camera gets out of the way. Despite the changing settings, Eat Pray Love will feel extremely long about halfway through the Italy leg of the journey, especially knowing there are two more countries to visit.
For viewers who are in a relationship or hope for one, Eat Pray Love seems to run counter to what people believe makes relationships last: communication and hard work. Instead, the film advocates running away, which doesn’t make for a very satisfying story since conflict drives drama – not escapism. Luckily, most people don’t have the money or time to get away for a year or else the divorce rate might be much higher than 50%.