I was seven when I first saw my mother’s favorite movie, “Pretty Woman.” She loved it so much that, years later, she would make it her email address. This was my first introduction to Julia Roberts, and I’ve been a die-hard fan ever since. I own most of her catalog of work on DVD (some even on VHS) and I can quote you “Notting Hill” or “My Best Friend’s Wedding” like nobody’s business. I even went to New York for her Broadway debut in Richard Greenberg’s “Three Days of Rain,” crying in awe from the first row. This is to say that, yes, I am a bit biased.
You can only imagine how thrilled I was a few years ago when rumors began to swirl that my Julia would be cast as the lead in the film adaptation of the 2006 smash hit “Eat, Pray Love: One Woman’s Search For Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia” by Elizabeth Gilbert. I read the memoir—in two days, if I remember correctly—and despite my hesitations about the adaptation of such a phenomenal text, my interest was of course piqued by the idea of Julia Roberts being the lead in a movie again. Since starting a family with husband Danny Moder, Julia’s been relatively absent from the big screen. She had supporting roles in films like “Ocean’s Eleven”, “Closer”, and “Duplicity”, but not since 2000′s “Erin Brockovich” has Julia carried a movie by herself.
Cut to 2010, 10 years since Julia won the Oscar for “Erin Brockovich,” and Julia is it at again in Ryan Murphy’s adaptation of “Eat Pray Love”. Now, I made my Julia Roberts bias clear, but I was equally hesitant about the adaptation itself. So much of what I loved about Gilbert’s memoir had to do with the prose itself; it was the kind of book you wanted to read with a highlighter nearby. I underlined passage after passage and handed the book on to many a friend and family member. It became my go-to suggestion at any bookstore. I had reservations that anyone, much less Ryan Murphy (I am not a “Glee” fan), could somehow get the magic of the book, the emotional journey that spans some three hundred pages, onto the big screen successfully.
Thankfully, my reservations were unwarranted; this is one hell of an adaptation. In a way that I still cannot vocalize, Murphy captured what was best about the book and condensed it into a lovely two-hour film. And while we do lose much of Gilbert’s prose (though some if it appears in the form of narration), Murphy’s adaptation does an impeccable job of sticking to the emotional truths of the book. As a reader of the memoir far before the adaptation even manifested, I felt deeply satisfied.
“Eat Pray Love” is about travel—both external and internal. It’s about Liz Gilbert (Roberts) negotiating a place of peace and balance in her life after a messy divorce with her longtime husband, Stephen (Billy Crudup, in a brief but chilling performance). Shot in sequence, the camera follows Liz across Italy (the food!), India (the temples!), and Bali (Javier Bardem!) as she does exactly what the title implies. She eats, she prays, and she learns to love. More than this, Gilbert aims to achieve a place of balance wherein she can rebuild the life that had fallen apart in the year prior. Dual credit to Murphy and Roberts for making the journey as personal as it was universal; as much theirs as ours.
Seeing as this film is, in the end, about people, this review would be remiss not to address the many performances given in the film. The supporting cast—Javier Bardem, Viola Davis, and James Franco—are all at the top of their game. I expected stellar performances from the first two (Bardem scared me shitless in “No Country For Old Men” and Davis upstaged The Meryl Streep in “Doubt”), but was pleasantly surprised with James Franco, whom I had only seen in “Pineapple Express”. Franco plays David, Liz’s rebound romance, post-divorce and pre-trip. He didn’t do much for me in “Pineapple Express,” but definitely demonstrated some acting chops in this film. This Fall he’ll play literary legend Allen Ginsberg in “Howl”, which I am now doubly excited to see. (Did I mention Mary-Louise Parker is in it, too?)
The stand-out of the supporting cast, though, is Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins, who plays Richard From Texas, a fellow American in India seeking forgiveness and enlightenment. In the sole scene in the film wherein the camera is not dead-center on Julia, Jenkins gives us a few minutes of uninhibited, raw emotion while speaking of his need for renewal and his pursuit for peace. It’s one of the most touching scenes in the film, and even after the camera has moved onto Bali, a part of you will miss Richard From Texas. I smell another nomination (at least) for Jenkins–you read it here first.
And then, of course, there’s Julia. Julia, Julia, Julia. Call me biased if you must, but I maintain that she’s one of the finest actresses of our generation, and gives one of the best performances of her career in the film. She becomes Liz Gilbert, picking up her speech patterns and idiosyncrasies, and carries the film with ease, appearing in nearly every frame.
Her performance in the film, though equally magnificent, is far different from her portrayal of Erin Brockovich that won her the Oscar nearly 10 years ago. The Julia Roberts in this film is quiet and mild-mannered; meek and subtle. There is no one scene that begs to be submitted for consideration; instead the film as a whole is a testament to Roberts, as she’s consistently perfect throughout. And god, that smile! It can still light up the sky after all these years. Who said she was due for another Oscar? Did you hear that too?
I have no doubt that “Eat Pray Love” will fare quite well at the box office. It’s been heavily marketed (and I mean heavily) and it already has a built-in audience in fans of Gilbert’s bestseller. In regards to reviews of the film, I expect them to be mixed because it’s not a film for everyone. I should mention that. It’s a film that’s meant for a certain audience. It’s a film whose audience must enter the theater with open hearts and open minds and be willing to experience the travel—the external and the internal—and harvest it personally. It’s one of the finest films I’ve seen all year, and I’ll see it again. And, you’re right, probably again after that, too. I hope you will do the same. It’ll make you feel all warm and fuzzy, like there’s a potential to wage peace in the every day, in the most minor ways. And if you still believe that, if you still feel that way hours after you’ve left the theater, the film has done its job.