The generations of American women who have grown up with, identified with and love Julia Roberts may relish her star turn in “Eat Pray Love,” one woman’s journey in search of herself and other things.
“Looking in all the wrong places,” she admits to her guru.
“Looking for what?” he asks.
But “Glee” writer Ryan Murphy’s adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir isn’t anything as remotely deep as that. It’s a travelogue about an impulsive, self-absorbed travel writer who ditches her admittedly flighty husband (Billy Crudup) with a single line.
“I don’t want to be married.”
He eventually has a comeback for that — “That’s just QUITTING.”
Even though she has supposedly lost everything in her divorce, she has the cash for a year off — traveling the world, seeking something to fill the void in her 30something arrested-development soul.
She spends months in Italy. I am woman. Watch me eat. And buy fat jeans afterward.
She stays on an ashram in India.
She studies with her “medicine man,” a quirky, toothless little fellow (Hadi Subiyanto) who conveniently lives in Bali, aka “paradise on Earth.”
And along the way, before and after the eating, she meets a dreamy young actor (James Franco) who turns her on to his yogi, a crusty Texan (Richard Jenkins) who berates her into “doing the work” at the ashram, and a sultry Brazilian (Javier Bardem) whose great gift seems to be holding his tongue about her shallow self-absorption.
This is “Sex and the City” with Carrie shopping for spirituality. And it’s damn near as insufferable as Gilbert’s very popular book.
But Roberts — who, like Carrie Bradshaw, narrates Liz’s quest — makes most of the two hours and 15 minutes of eating, praying and loving pleasant enough. The Italian scenery dazzles, India impresses and Bali will make you swoon.
And the TV-trained Murphy peppers the screen with oddball bit players who come on, deliver some withering little bon mot and fade into the background.
“Americans know entertainment, but you don’t know pleasure,” an Italian lectures.
“Ruin is a gift. Ruin is the road to transformation.”
“You want to get to the castle, you’ve got to swim the moat.”
And the kicker, the best in this collection of bumper sticker snippets — “God dwells within you as you.”
Murphy indulges in a little glee of his own when it comes to music, seasoning scenes with too obvious pop tunes — Sly Stone’s “Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin,” and Neil Young’s search song, “Heart of Gold.”
“Eat Pray Love” isn’t a bad movie — just a spiritually dead one, wearing and wearying. The cute supporting cast (Viola Davis is the wise-cracking best friend) tosses off cute one-liners and Roberts smiles broadly and tries to pretend the journey she takes isn’t rendered hilariously pointless by the finale.
It is a much better movie, one hour in, when Jenkins shows up. His character’s no-nonsense bluntness, labeling the indulgent Liz “Groceries” because here she is in a spartan spiritual retreat in the middle of India and all she does is eat, and his vulnerability, suggest a deeper but still amusing movie that might have been.
For a film about a woman whose motto is “I’m through with the guilt,” Roberts and Murphy & Co. have delivered a guilty pleasure. It’s great to see her in something this light again, looking much as she did 10 years ago. “Eat Pray Love” allows Roberts’ longtime fans to travel the world, and back in time with her. If only we all could eat until we pop and age in reverse and still have the glow of amber backlighting.
Two and a half stars
Cast: Julia Roberts, Javier Bardem, Viola Davis, Richard Jenkins, James Franco, Billy Crudup
Director: Ryan Murphy
Running time: 2:16
Rated: PG-13 for brief strong language, some sexual references and male rear nudity