Eat, Pray, Love is not your typical chick flick. Julia Roberts, as author Elizabeth Gilbert, spends much of the film feeing depressed and lost, and the story gives us only intermittent moments of the spontaneous, over-the-top bliss that characterizes this genre. In fact, Eat, Pray, Love is almost its own genre–the self-help kind.
After being married for eight years (to a character played by Billy Crudup, no less!) Julia’s character realizes that her posh Manhattan existence is meaningless and decides to divorce her husband and strike it out on her own. As a travel writer, her natural inclination is to hit the road when things go bad, and so she does. A few months in Italy, then in an ashram in India, and, finally, Bali. After a whirlwind year of self-discovery, she returns to New York with a whole new life ahead of her, a new man in tow.
I am not a fan of chick flicks–only the classics really do it for me (hello, “Bridget Jones.”) And yet, Eat, Pray, Love strikes a chord through its willingness to show a woman in a state: Julia spends much of the early part of the film going frantically emotional and these episodes fall closest to stroking our need for realism. Unlike a Nancy Meyers character, this heroine’s sadness cannot be easily cured with a grand meal or a gorgeous pair of shoes.
Or at least that’s how things start. The travelogue portion of Eat is designed to cure Julia’s every ailment by thrusting her into other cultures that are more sensuous, spiritual, and visually engaging. Julia’s character eats her way through Italy (without actually gaining weight), prays obediently in India, and serves a holy medicine man in Bali while cozying up to Javier Bardem. By the end of this journey she seems to have cured her own inner malaise, though this is expressed awkwardly at best.
Using foreign lands as a metaphor for Westerners’ inner transformation goes back far in time, and you only have to look around the neighborhood multiplex to see other films currently employing the same strategy (Sex and the City 2 comes to mind). As Mia Mask astutely pointed out on NPR recently, “Eats”’ focus on putting its protagonist in the exotic Far East in order to invite this transformation smacks of Orientalism. Though there are a token few “native” characters who are humanized during these parts of the film, the narrative is so wrapped up in Julia’s character’s point of view that one can easily forget the crushing poverty and suffering of urban India and rural Indonesia.
After a promisingly unconventional start, Eat, Pray, Love concludes with the well-worn assertion that love can indeed ruin your life, but a new boyfriend is really the only thing that can truly fulfill you. In the end, it’s all a little too pat and predictable.