I like Julia Roberts. Her quirky, disarming nature, warm smile and perpetual glint in her eyes; she’s a charming woman, at times a fiery redhead, at times a vulnerable, sweet girl; and she’s proven on more than one occasion that she can be quite an adept actress. The trouble is, when I look back at her filmography, I wonder just how many of her films are actually any good. Erin Brockovich is the obvious one – it gave her fans (and critics) definitive proof of how good she really was – but she hasn’t taken on that many challenging roles over the last two decades of her involvement in the industry. And I do have a major gripe with her: she has been a great influence on the success of the rom-com-drama. This would not have been a bad thing if they were kept at a decent standard, but these days anything qualifies for a cheap shot at making money in the flabby genre. Even Roberts herself succumbed to this side-effect with the lacklustre, poorly-received American Sweethearts. But when travel writer Elizabeth Gilbert struck gold with her bestselling novel – Eat, Pray, Love – a romantic, dramatic cinematic adaptation seemed a foregone conclusion, and who better to star in it than one of Hollywood’s favourite, and most highly paid actresses, Julia Roberts?
Liz Gilbert (Roberts) is a travel writer who, whilst interviewing in Bali, has her fortune told by a medicine man, and takes it as gospel, suddenly taking stock of her life, finding it boring and uneventful, and desperately seeking change. To this end she abruptly jacks in an 8-year relationship with her husband (Billy Crudup) and immediately starts dating a terrible stage actor (James Franco) who is over a decade younger than her. After that goes predictably wrong, she decides she needs a bigger change, and tells her best friend/managing agent that she’s taking a year out from her life. She buys three tickets to go travelling: first to Italy, then India, and then Bali, where she plans to – respectively – eat, pray and love. In Italy she makes a stupid number of friends, discovers the sweet bliss of doing nothing, learns to enjoy food once more and practices Italian; in India she tries to figure out what God would best work for her, meeting an initially confrontational middle-aged American (Richard Jenkins) at the Ashram she is attached to, who eventually helps her to discover what she wants from life; and then, finally, in Bali, she hooks up with a charming Brazilian businessman (Javier Bardem) to complete her life.
Right, first the positive. Eat, Pray, Love is – ostensibly – a well-meaning, self-help story about putting yourself first, learning what makes you happy, and rediscovering a love for life, and for love. It features beautiful locations, breathtaking vistas captured with a loving eye for everything that makes these places so enchanting, almost presenting Italy, India and Bali in such a sumptuous, enticing way that it could be argued that the film is just an extended advert for travelling the world to see them.
And at its core we have Julia Roberts, herself a Hindu believer, and very much a fan of the book, who puts her all into depicting this middle-aged woman who drops everything to ‘become whole again’ in a year-long voyage of food and romance, with a little religion thrown in for good measure. Roberts is a charming narrator, the best person they could have picked to take the lead, and her intoxicating smile and contagious cheery demeanour carry the movie for the most part. I’m sure that if Roberts decided to take a year out and travel the world, this is exactly what she would find – making friends effortlessly in every port, finding romance perpetually knocking at her door, and removing all of the restrictions on what society tells her to do, and not to do, in favour of personal happiness. It would be a dream-like bliss. She’s rich enough to do such a thing, and this is exactly how it would turn out. For all those out there who just want to watch Julia Roberts getting paid to go on a trip around the world and learn how to ‘enjoy herself’ then, honestly, stop reading here.
On the face of things, few will disagree with the fact that the movie is inherently flawed. Despite a painfully long runtime (and the Director’s Extended Cut pushes it even closer to the two-and-a-half-hour mark) the book that it is based upon charts over a year in somebody’s life. It writes about relationships that take place over a matter of months, a marriage that lasted 8 years, and jaunts around the world with far more than pit-stops – actually, months are spent at each location. In written form, it is easier to show the passing of time; to develop things in a fluid, well-paced way. You can see relationships start well, blossom, wilt, and devolve into nothingness. Here, they take place in a matter of minutes, and you wonder how long they were supposed to have lasted – a month? a week? Even the way Liz makes friends seems unbelievable, one trip to a coffee-shop and all-of-a-sudden she has a new extended family welcoming her in. The movie, in every crucial instance, fails to capture the passage of time accurately. (It’s worth noting, at this point, that the 6-minute longer Director’s Cut does not really rectify this – after all, in 6 minutes, can it? – but that it does give us a little more of Liz arguing with her rebound-fling boyfriend, an area of the film which, time-wise, made the least sense and which, whilst not fixed by the new cut, does work a tiny bit better – even if they should have just ripped the entire sub-plot out.)
But all of this is just poor filmmaking. It does not really take away from the fact that this is still a pretty movie with a pretty star which can be enjoyed as a fun road trip. As long as you don’t take it too seriously. Unfortunately, for those who do, the darker underbelly of this movie is in its depiction of what is a total fantasy world, posited as reality. Few viewers (and readers) will pick up on the fact that Liz Gilbert was actually paid to go on this year-long voyage of navel-gazing self-reflection, which is surely the crux of the whole thing. And since very few jobs would cater for such an extravagant adventure, where does that leave the rest of the human race? Oh yeah, the rest of us have already grown-up, and don’t need to hit forty, have a mid-life crisis and a seven-year-itch and decide that – rather than accept that it is childish, pointless and, most importantly, massively selfish – we should instead ‘embrace change’ and basically jack all of our responsibilities and spend a stupid amount of money on a glorified gap year. I thought that was for students after they finish their studies? They should rename the film: stuff most people learn by their early twenties.
Let me run down just a few items on the long list of things not to like about the lead character (which is a bit of a problem in a very long movie that is all about her): she’s fickle, highly gullible, and massively spoiled. She’s also a self-absorbed, sociopathic narcissist. Her husband is not depicted to have done anything wrong at all – she literally just decides one day that she doesn’t know why she’s married, and wants a divorce; her friends and family tell her they are there to support her and that she should deal with her problems rather than run away – her answer is that she is too selfish to think about anybody else at the moment, and so her plan is to go away and spend a year nurturing that selfishness, and then come back a new and revitalised person who no longer needs to be quite so selfish; the first guy she falls for after her husband seduces her by reading back the very self-help words that she wrote – egotistical much? Believe me, this list goes on.
“I disappear into the person I love. I am the permeable membrane. If I love you, you can have it all. My money, my time, my body...my dog, my dog’s money. I will assume your debts, and project upon you all sorts of nifty qualities you’ve never actually cultivated in yourself. I will give you all this and more...until I am so exhausted and depleted that the only way I can recover is by becoming infatuated with someone else.”
And, when all is said and done, if her belief is that a woman puts her all into a relationship, so much so that the only way she can reset the balance is to fall for someone else, then this routine is just going to go on ad infinitum. It’s doomed from the get-go. Even the narrative comes full-circle – if she goes on a voyage of self-discovery, which teaches her that, to be ultimately complete, you need love, then surely you end up right back where you begin, don’t you? Surely she might wake up one day (8 years down the line into another ostensibly happy relationship) and think “What am I doing here? I’m a bit bored. I should drop everything in my life and go visit Russia, Vietnam and Fiji to rediscover myself.”?
Now I have no real problem with this (terrible) message that is spreading like wildfire amidst our ranks, so long as it hit the right people – as in the story, if you’re rich, white and single, and pretty bored with your life, why not waste several thousand and go travelling? Seriously, I don’t care if rich people waste a whole bunch of money realising that running away is not the solution; finding out – the hard way – that you can’t just ‘appear’ in a foreign country and make dozens of instant, totally trustworthy friends who will eventually be more like a family to you than your own. If you are that short-sighted and capricious, be my guest. Go. For. It.
My trouble is the other few billion people that this movie/book has gotten the attention of: all those middle-aged housewives who don’t need much motivation at all to, often unnecessarily, suddenly reassess their whole lives, question all of the important decisions that they have ever made, and ‘discover’ that there isn’t anything that they like about themselves, or anybody else around them. I mean, mid-life crisis anyone?
Let me get something straight. When a man has a mid-life crisis (we’re talking in the movies here, I’m not trying to generalise on what the entire human race actually go through) he is normally depicted as buying a sports car, flirting with someone twenty years his junior, wearing inappropriately young clothes, and maybe even taking up the guitar or forming a band or something. Watch even the most reasonable movie which depicts a male mid-life crisis and it is NEVER favourable. Look at the guy in Juno, and see how immature and childish he is shown to be. “Irresponsible little man, why don’t you just grow up and see what you have in your life?” is what the audience is supposed to cry out. God forbid he has an affair – realises everything he has lost, and seeks to rebuild it; the audience then asking why he needed to sleep with another woman to wake up to everything he has in his life.
On the other hand, when a woman has a mid-life crisis...get a divorce, throw all your money away (but make sure you’ve got a steady stream coming in through book and movie deals) and go on a self-centred trip around the world to find as many new friends as you can to add to your facebook profile. Eat what you like (so long as you only go from size 0 to size 2), choose a suitable God for yourself (preferably in a polytheistic religion, which, in your eyes, is just a way of saying ‘pick n mix’), and discover your independent free spirit before eventually realising what you actually want is a man after all. Then find a guy who’s prepared to marry you even though – if they actually read your bestselling book, they may realise that, somewhere down the line, you could do this all again. On a whim. Or because a 9th generation medicine man in Bali told you to.
“Here I am with a ninth generation medicine man and what do I want to ask him about? My relationship.”
There is no redemption in this voyage, no rectifying your mistakes, seeing the error of your ways. There is no taking responsibility for your actions and for your behaviour. It’s just dangerously realistic escapism. The kind that has spawned numerous websites which will actually assist unhappy 40+ women to take the exact trip that Liz Gilbert/Julia Roberts took, in an effort to find their true happiness too. It’ll probably only cost you your job, life, partner, friends and about fifty grand.
I dislike films with this kind of message. They take an extremely unlikeable lead character – who does some pretty mean and unjustifiable things, and is relentlessly selfish in everything she does – and paint her as an inspiration to all women. I hope there are enough intelligent people out there who can see through this charade, see beyond the pretty pouting lips mouthing Italian words, and the effortless way the lead character glides through life having everything handed to her on a platter (and still manages to perpetually whine about it), and be a bit more aware that there’s actually more to life than just me, me, me. To those who are that mature about things, this may well be a pleasant, pretty travel diary featuring the always-engaging Julia Roberts, eating food and charming/wooing the locals. For those who are hoping that this will change your life forever, it likely won’t. But it may leave you poorer, overweight, unemployed, and having to build an all-new relationship right from scratch. Or at least questioning yourself, your partner and your life more than you were before. No wonder divorce rates are higher than ever before, Hollywood loves selling chronic displeasure to gullible women. So please don’t take it too seriously, just watch the film for Julia Roberts and sunsets, and try not to think about it any more than that. Dangerously preachy and faux-inspirational, this is popcorn location eye-candy at best.
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