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

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

“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

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.