Aug. 13 2010 12:00 AM

Julia Roberts suffers in style in glossy


    Who is the real star of “Eat Pray Love,” adapted from
    Elizabeth Gilbert’s spectacularly successful memoir about finding yourself
    through the magic of Italian cuisine, Indian gurus and the wisdom of Balinese
    medicine men? Is it Julia Roberts, who is in every scene of the film? Or is it
    Susan Spungen, the food stylist par excellence, who has created the movie’s
    jaw-droppingly perfect portraits of pasta?

    True, Roberts is radiant throughout — even when Liz is in
    the throes of a crushing identity crisis or a bitter divorce, Roberts always
    finds opportunities to unleash her stunning smile — but even her milk-chocolate
    eyes and shimmering saffron hair get some determined competition from the
    Italian dishes Spungen has cooked up. Sizable stretches of “Eat” are devoted to
    scandalous close-ups of spaghetti, provocatively arranged prosciutto slices and
    magnificent platters of fried artichokes that might have inspired Shakespearean
    sonnets. When Liz drizzles olive oil over stalks of asparagus, the image has
    the erotic charge of Marlon Brando’s trick with the butter in “Last Tango in
    Paris.”


    EatPrayLove1.jpgSoon after arriving in Italy, a lonely Liz makes a date with
    a plate of spaghetti pomodoro. When Roberts plunges her fork into the
    meticulously arranged strands, sending that gorgeous dusting of Parmesan cheese
    flying and that sumptuous vermilion sauce splattering, it’s as terrifying as
    John Travolta jabbing that syringe into Uma Thurman’s heart in “Pulp Fiction”:
    You can’t imagine someone committing such violence against something so exquisite.


    Spungen was also responsible for the
    damn-the-calories-full-speed-ahead French meals showcased in last summer’s
    tummy tantalizer “Julie & Julia,” but “Eat Pray Love” makes that Gallic
    gala look like a documentary about Old Country Buffet.


    Of course, eating is only one-third of Gilbert’s recipe for
    getting back in touch with herself after walking out on a static marriage
    (Billy Crudup plays her monochromatic, aimless husband, who committed the
    unpardonable sin of playing Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration” at their wedding
    reception). There’s also a sojourn in an Indian ashram — the “Pray” portion of
    our program — and an extended stay in Bali, where a bicycle-riding Liz is
    nearly killed by a distracted driver who, naturally, turns out to be Mr. Right.


    Although Liz loses her marvelous Manhattan home and much of
    her wealth in the wake of the divorce, she ends up gaining some of those
    elusive “things money can’t buy,” such as a clear conscience, a new
    appreciation of herself and — oh, yeah — a hunky, reckless Brazilian rich guy
    who shouldn’t be behind the wheel. (Interestingly, the movie neglects to
    mention that Liz’s year-long, continent-jumping vision quest was financed by a
    hefty advance from her publisher, who correctly sensed it had the makings of a
    best-seller.)


    “Ruin is a gift,” Liz ruminates as she sits in the
    tumbledown splendor of Rome’s Augusteum. “Ruin is the road to transformation.”
    If ruin also means getting to consume large quantities of flabbergasting food
    and sorting through your various heartaches in a Balinese cottage straight out
    of a Calvin Klein fragrance ad, to quote that noted soul-searcher George W.
    Bush, bring it on.


    The movie puts a glossy coating on even the most mundane episodes, which makes it gorgeous to look at, even when it's slightly painful to listen to. Whatever its flaws, it does attempt to demonstrate there's more to life than exercising your credit cards, changing your hair and fretting about Botox; compared to such brainless, witless chick flickery as "Sex and the City 2," "Confessions of a Shopaholic" and "New in Town," this is practically "Atlas Shrugged."


    That said, the "mangia episodes are more enjoyable than the meditation
    sequences, which detail Liz’s encounter with Richard From Texas (Richard
    Jenkins), who nicknames her Groceries — no explanation necessary — and jeers at
    her half-hearted attempts to find inner peace.


    “You wanna get to the castle, Groceries, you gotta swim the
    moat,” Richard barks. “Do you always talk in bumper sticker?” Liz cracks.


    Yet only minutes later, she’s complaining, “It’s not that I
    need ‘easy’ right now, it’s just that I can’t take ‘so hard.’” So who’s fluent
    in bumper sticker?


    If “Eat” serves up plenty of Oprahesque banalities along
    with its magnificent meals, at least screenwriter Jennifer Salt offers a
    spoonful of humor to help the medicine go down. When Liz brings copies of “Who
    Moved My Cheese?” and “Crappy to Happy” to the check-out counter of a
    bookstore, the clued-in clerk reminds her, “You know, we’ve got a whole divorce
    section downstairs.” Felipe (Javier Bardem), the reckless motorist, tries to
    pick up Liz in a bar by talking about his deep love of the music of Phil
    Collins and Air Supply. “You really shouldn’t say things like that out loud,” Liz
    advises.


    Director Ryan Murphy (whose scene-staging has improved
    enormously since his ham-handed “Running with Scissors”) devotes many of the
    film’s 140 minutes to simply basking in the vibrant colors of New Delhi, the
    serenity of the Balinese coast and the rustic Roman streets. In addition to
    boosting business at Italian restaurants, this movie should also double the
    traffic at Priceline and Travelocity.


    It won’t do any damage to Roberts’ reputation, either. She’s
    thoroughly convincing and immensely likable as she flirts and feasts her way
    around the world. Twenty years after her breakthrough role in “Pretty Woman”
    and 10 years after her Oscar-winning turn in “Erin Brockovich,” Roberts remains
    a certifiable screen presence, easily carrying this sprawling show on her
    delicate shoulders.


    While Bardem, Crudup and James Franco are fine as the
    various men in Liz’s busy love life, it’s Jenkins who gets the meatiest
    material: Richard’s anguished monologue about the collapse of his family is
    shot in one lengthy take, and Jenkins turns it into an arresting moment that
    temporarily pushes all the fabulous food porn and scenic spiritual safaris to
    the sidelines.

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