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Soul-searching on the menu

22 September 2010

Stephen Brown sees an underwhelming quest


THE journalist Elizabeth Gilbert’s book about her travels as a thirty-something trying to find herself after an acrimonious divorce has sold more than six million copies. It has been made into a film, Eat Pray Love (Cert. PG). That is a great pity. The film soft-pedals all three words of the title: unadventurous food, bland religion, and almost invisible love. Gilbert’s quest in setting off from America was to “deal with herself”: the film never mentions the large pub­lisher’s advance that bankrolled such soul-searching.

Julia Roberts plays Gilbert. Some viewers will probably be ir­ritated by a character who “has it all” — good health, a loving if quirky hus­band, and affluence — and yet is deeply dissatisfied. (Despite all her spiritual awakenings, the real Eliza­beth Gilbert admits she struggles to record even one item of gratitude per day.)

The film is primarily concerned with doing something about not getting what she wants out of life, and falls short on what she could give. Perhaps wanting or getting, at least in its unredeemed form, is a human need. It is certainly a very American one, dating back to a Declaration of Independence, which enshrines the pursuit of happiness. But I wonder if any of us would bat an eyelid if the film concerned a man on a similar trek. The film implicitly ponders, in a ponderous way, the Lord’s question: what does it profit us if we gain the whole world, but lose our souls?

Elizabeth sets out to visit countries that start with “I”. Italy, India, and Indonesia all figure, but mainly as romantic eye-candy. The eating bits fail to convey the delight of lovingly prepared food and a meal’s potential to be a near-spiritual experience. The second word of the title is so under-prayed that anyone who does go in for that kind of thing will marvel at the apparent lack of understanding of it. Anyone who does not pray will puzzle over the failure of this film to attribute any significance to it.

Love, which is usually pretty big in Hollywood, is underwhelming here. Javier Bardem plays the object of Elizabeth’s desires. All in all, the film is a limp statement about a person’s longing for love. Once again, Roberts is ultimately “just a girl standing in front of a boy asking him to love her”. I am not sure that she needed to eat so much and travel so far to discover that.

On general release.

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