In The Simpsons episode “The Mysterious Voyage of Homer”, Homer wanders through a psychedelic dreamscape led by a mystical coyote in an attempt to find his soul mate. The spirit quest leads him up pyramids and across putt-putt courses, but his search ultimately ends where it began—with Marge, throwing all his personal doubts about his identity out the window. Unfortunately Liz Gilbert, the protagonist of Ryan Murphy’s Eat Pray Love, finds her spirit quest a little more difficult. Unlike Homer, whose self-doubts are rooted in something specific and witnessed—his drinking at the Springfield Annual Chili Cookoff—we meet Liz just after her disgust for her husband is realized. There’s no reason for her to fall out of love, except maybe a chest full of travel clippings she’s stored away over the years, but even this is a tenuous connection. Liz generally just feels unhappy, can’t be bothered to explain why amid her near-endless exposition, and that’s where the film’s problems begin. They only multiply from there.
So you have the setup—Liz is a disgruntled writer living in New York City who has grown bored with her husband and living arrangements. After a brief affair with the 28-year-old David Piccolo (James Franco), she sets off to “find herself” in the rustic cities of Italy, meditation chambers of India, and picturesque nature of Bali over the course of an entire year. Maybe I’m letting myself get in the way of the narrative, but I have trouble empathizing with a woman whose emotional and mental problems feel largely self-imagined, and who can somehow up and abandon her entire life, with little concern for friends or family, to go travel the world for a year. There’s something inherently selfish and bourgeoisie about Liz’s entire story—but nevermind. Let’s continue. While in Italy she befriends several Italians and learns the “beauty of doing nothing”, something she has trouble infusing with the rigorous meditation schedule of the Indian guru center she visits next. Inevitably she makes a few very important friends in each place—a tutor and Swede, a misplaced Texan, and an ancient Medicine-Man-come-Philosopher—as you’ll be reminded occasionally via cross-world quickshots of each characters’ face as they react to Liz’s e-mails. Eventually she meets Javier Bardem’s character and falls in love, learns to forgive herself, and sets out on a new life, far removed from her self-loathing New York past.
This movie’s a new age crock of shit. It caters to “millennial” and older “granola” audiences who believe all of life’s woes, from misguided self-images to poverty, can be cured by abandoning your past and beginning anew. There is no conflict to speak of—Liz spends the entire film running from her problems rather than facing them. There is no character growth outside superficial “ spiritual enlightenment”—no great accomplishment or understanding achieved. What you get is the same thing you get with most films starring Julia Roberts—her falling in love with some man and making out a lot, only this time there’s some yoga stuff and a lot of people sitting on rocks in between. It’s fun to watch, but when you actually think about what Liz is doing—how she’s actively avoiding commitment to anything or place in the name of reconciling some undeveloped identity crisis—it’s hard to give a shit about anything she does, regardless of where it is. Eat Pray Love is a shallow film for shallow people—brings nothing new to the table other than a hokey, half-assed interpretation of new age religious practices. Do yourself a favor—rent Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air and forget this abomination was ever produced.