If you’re on Twitter at all (and if you are, follow me @bananaoilmovies!), you might be familiar with the hashtag #firstworldproblems. It’s a pretty descriptive little phrase designed to throw a bit of snark at those more fortunate than ourselves. For a lot of people, it’s also a good summary for the story of Eat Pray Love, journalist Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir of a year spent traveling the globe in search of herself, and now a major motion picture starring Julia Roberts.
I’ve got a lot to say about this. And the movie. Let’s dive in, shall we? I’m crabby today, so this ought to be entertaining.
Liz Gilbert is a successful writer, but she’s unhappy and feels she is losing herself in her marriage to less-successful Stephen (Billy Crudup, appropriately schmuck-like), who seems to be a professional career-shopper without an actual career. After separating/divorcing Stephen, she finds herself in another unfulfilling relationship with much-younger actor David (James Franco, kind of smarmy). Feeling that she has lost all passion for life, she embarks upon a year-long journey of self-discovery (and a quest for God) that takes her first to Italy (in order to eat and learn Italian), then to India (to live/work at an ashram), and finally to Indonesia, where she wants to put all of her new-found knowledge together under the tutelage of the charming, toothless medicine man (Hadi Subiyanto, adorable) she met in Bali while on a previous assignment. This time around, she also meets a charming Brazilian divorcee (Javier Bardem, sensitive and fabulous), thus ending the year with love. Lest we think it’s all too rom-com for words, I’d like to point out that in reality, Gilbert married her Brazilian and they’re still together today. And she wrote a really successful book and now has a movie. In which she is played by Julia Roberts. Win!
Alright. So I already know what you’re thinking. What a lot of people are thinking. And to you, and them, I say phooey. Take your holier-than-thou, indie cred, sneers-at-bourgeouis enjoyment attitude, and stuff it. Or, um, to be a bit nicer (told you I was crabby), “Geez. Lighten up!” My reasons for going and seeing this movie were mainly, and I quote, “[to] watch pretty people visit pretty places and eat awesome food”. Plus Javier Bardem. And it delivered on those scores, definitely.
However, I would also like to say that I found it to be moving and thought-provoking. Not on any tremendously deep level, but still. We’ve all had periods of our lives where we felt we needed guidance, or a chance to reconnect with ourselves. I mean, I don’t really buy that looking for oneself, or attempting to find some balance/peace/happiness is purely a “first world problem.” Seems like that’s an everybody problem. What people are taking issue with is Ms. Gilbert’s method of dealing with said problem, which, sure, I’d also love to take a year off and eat pizza in Naples and visit lots of exotic locations. But I can’t, so I will have to find myself how and when I can. But that doesn’t mean that I should begrudge her the ability to do it in her way.
She’s also criticized in various places for being selfish. Well, to that I would suggest that we are all, especially at difficult points in our lives, pretty damn selfish. I think it’s even necessary from time to time. I read one review in which a specific part of the movie was criticized. For her birthday, Gilbert emails all of her friends and asks them to send money to a woman she’s befriended in Bali, in order for that woman to build a house and provide a stable life for her daughter. The reviewer suggests that this is done from a purely selfish standpoint, in order to prove how lovely and selfless a human being Gilbert wants us all to think she is. Um, ok. First of all, how was she to know anyone would ever read about her experience, really, much less watch it on a big screen? And I don’t know, I guess I just find that whole notion kind of ridiculous anyway. Sure, most of us get a good feeling about ourselves out of helping others, but more importantly, we still helped those people, right?
Mostly, I think that people are only taking the whole thing at face value. “Oh, forget her, she spent 4 months in Bali, wah wah wah.” The thing is, the movie at least (I haven’t read the book) is not a documentary. It is not designed to tell us how to live our lives. It is one woman’s story of some adventures she had. That’s it. Same as any other number of movies. So why spend time on a rant about how she’s selfish and her problems are not resonant? It’s her story. Her life. She doesn’t have to answer to you. I’ve seen other posts in which people list the reasons why they could not do what she has done, because they have kids or don’t have money, or whatever. Well, that’s YOUR life. You fix it/live it your way, and then maybe you’ll get a movie made about you, and someone even less fortunate than you (because realistically, they do exist) can complain about how your problems don’t resonate with them. It’s a never-ending cycle.
But hey, to each his/her own, right? Bottom line is that I try to keep an open perspective and learn from whatever source I can. And I liked this movie. It spoke me to me, it gave me a lot to think about, and I found it something worth sitting in a theater and watching. So there.
Oh yes, and about the movie…
First off, Julia Roberts’ performance in the film is spot-on. She carried us through her pain and her struggles and her triumphs without too-frequently resorting to the megawatt grin and braying laugh that are her trademarks, for good or ill. Her supporting cast, most notably Bardem and Richard Jenkins as a fellow American living at the ashram in India, also provided all the right notes. Bardem, in particular, gave an interesting performance. He could so easily have been a one-note, stud-muffin love interest, but instead, we get a damaged man who is still reeling from a divorce ten years earlier and cries when his son’s visit is over. Jenkins, too, who starts out in what seems to be a sort of comic-relief role, delivers some of the most poignant moments of the film. It’s these characters that remind us that we’re watching a real story, and not just a rom-com. They are based on real people with real problems, and while one would have liked to have seen more development for most of the supporting cast, they still felt multi-dimensional and, well, real.
The scenery and the cinematography is, of course, gorgeous. The pace of the film was not as slow as I was anticipating, and it maintained a steady arc overall, though at times it felt a little choppy. I get that the scenes were perhaps meant to be a series of vignettes, but the transitions could have been more fluid. Still, the movie hits all the right notes of poignancy and playfulness, and while I don’t think it’ll make any “best of the year” lists or generate any award-season buzz, there are worse ways one could spend an afternoon.
To sum up, I get the complaints, but I guess that I just don’t feel they are warranted. Whether or not we agree with the way in which Gilbert has lived her life, and whether or not we are envious of her experiences, it’s still her life. She wrote a hit book, she gets to be played by Julia Roberts, and it is what it is. Good for her, I say. At the end of the day, this is still just a movie. You get out of it what you put in. If you were somehow expecting a life-altering experience (for you), you’ll probably be disappointed. If you’re open to the idea that it won’t be completely shallow and mindless, I think you’ll discover there’s some meaning to be found. And if you just want to see pretty people and pretty scenery? Well, that works too.