Traveling and soul-searching can be alternately enticing and dispiriting experiences, and that curious cocktail of highs and lows relates directly to Eat, Pray, Love, a film all about jumping off the grid in search of self, meaning, cool places to meditate, and good food. Not necessarily in that order. Based on Elizabeth Gilbert’s mostly autobiographical bestseller, the movie follows mid-lifer Liz (Julia Roberts) as she pursues the operative verbs of the title in power place-name nouns, from her homebase of N.Y.C. to Italy, India, and Bali.
In a way, this summery blockbuster—the “chick flick” antidote to last weekend’s boffo box-office “dude flick” The Expendables—is commendable for crossing the line into the business of spirituality, even if that aspect feels a bit too prefab and tinsel to strike deep. Early in the tale, Roberts’s restless urbanite writer character resorts to praying for guidance, opening with “Hello, God, nice to finally meet you.” Off she goes, into a year adrift in “quest physics,” and soul balm from such varied sources as a Balinese wise man (played winningly by Hadi Subiyanto) and the solace of potential new love with Javier Bardem. As a fellow escapee and soul-searcher in an Indian ashram, Richard Jenkins steals the show with a stunning confessional scene, the finest three minutes of acting in the movie.
Masterful cinematographer Robert Richardson (Inglourious Basterds, Shutter Island) provides luminous visuals throughout the film, giving a seductive glow to this inwardly fueled road movie, from the saliva gland-tickling imagery of Italian food to the glorious scenery in India and Bali. Musically, the wanderlust gimmick involves mixing up standard-brand Hollywood film-score goop with splashes of more site-specific world music, suggesting a Starbucks-y compilation in the making.
As our center of attention and tour guide to the soul, Roberts has enough warmth and wiles to keep us tuned in as she wanders, with and without purpose. But in the doldrum passages, this overlong film feels like an advertisement for the travel industry and meditation, lapsing into a kind of sufferin’ self succotash.