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Saturday, August 14, 2010

Saturday Night At The Movies

Under My Big Fat Tuscan Sun

By Dennis Hartley

Eat Pray Love
: Anyone seen Somerset Maugham?

Do you remember that popular Top 40 song from the late 70s that went like this?

Oh, I've been to Nice and the Isle of Greece,
while I've sipped champagne on a yacht
I've moved like Harlow in Monte Carlo,
and showed 'em what I've got
I've been undressed by kings and I've seen some things,
that a woman ain’t supposed to see
I’ve been to paradise, but I’ve never been to me

God, I hated that song.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t begrudge the singer’s admirable journey of self-actualization, slogging and suffering along the way through the champagne and tiresome Mediterranean cruises and all, but any schlub who has been to at least two world’s fairs and a rodeo could have saved her the trip by quoting Buckaroo Banzai’s favorite adage:

Remember…wherever you go, there you are.

On the plus side, it only took 4 minutes for the singer to arrive at her epiphany. Unfortunately, it takes the globe-trotting heroine of Ryan Murphy’s film adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat Pray Love 133 minutes to reach that same conclusion (OK, so it took Tyrone Power 145 minutes in The Razor’s Edge…but who’s counting?)

Julia Roberts stars as Gilbert’s avatar in the film, where she is briefly introduced to us as a (seemingly) happy, thirty-something NYC-based writer with a loving and supporting husband (Billy Crudup). I say “briefly introduced”, because soon after a research trip to Bali, during the course of which a shaman (Hadi Subiyanto) foretells that she will lose all her money, but eventually return to study under him so that he may impart his great wisdom, Liz decides that she needs to bolt from the marriage (much to the puzzlement of husband and audience). Since there is virtually no exposition as to why she has the sudden change of heart (perfunctory flashbacks down the line do little to clarify), we just have to assume it’s one of those spur-of-the-moment, “I’ve never been to me” moments.

While the ink is still drying on her divorce papers (at least in screen time), Liz tumbles headlong into a relationship with a hunky young off-off Broadway stage actor (James Franco). The lust, however, soon turns to wanderlust, and Liz decides that maybe what she really needs is to take a year off from…everything. So, leaving her new relationship somewhere in the neutral zone, she embarks on a three-pronged attack in order to “find herself”, first to Italy (eat), then India (pray) and then Bali (love…oops, is that a spoiler?)

So what does she learn? Want the speed-dating version? Here goes! In Italy, they have like, killer pasta and pizza. Awesome! And the gelato…it’s to die for! Oh…and Italians live in the moment, and they talk with their hands…just like the people on Jersey Shore! And when Liz decides to treat her new Italian friends to an all-American style home-cooked Thanksgiving meal with all the trimmings, one of the Italians, being unfamiliar with our ways and customs, forgets to defrost the bird. But, not to worry-Liz puts it in the oven, they all go to bed, and then, they have turkey for breakfast. How whimsical! Next stop: India, where Liz learns piety by scrubbing floors at an ashram. Oh, and gurus live in the moment. Then, it’s back to Bali, where she goes back to the shaman who started the whole thing (he lives in the moment). Then, she meets a sexy Brazilian! (Javier Bardem).

Roberts is suitably radiant, flashes her million dollar smile and delivers her patented hearty guffaws right on cue, but she oddly seems to spend a good portion of this (very long) film as an observer of her character’s journey, rather than an active participant. Consequently, it’s hard for us to really care about what happens to our leading lady; and that is a fatal flaw. The always wonderful Richard Jenkins (as another American at the ashram) briefly perks up the middle third. But as soon as his character disappears, so does the spirit and energy he brings to the film. The locales are gorgeous, and there’s plenty of food porn for the gastronomiques, but that doesn’t candy-coat Robert’s phoned-in performance and the flat, soap opera-ish dialog (co-written by Murphy and Jennifer Salt). It’s like randomly surfing between Lifetime, The Food Network and The Travel Channel.

I have not read the source book, nor frankly am I ever likely to (if I see “An Oprah Book Club Selection” sticker on the dust jacket, my reaction is much akin to that of a vampire unexpectedly encountering a garlic bulb). The Pottery Barn angst on display here is tough to sympathize with in these hard economic times (how many of us can afford the luxury of “taking a year off” to navel-gaze?), and seems bent on perpetrating the Ugly American meme. In fact, I thought that the depictions of the “colorful locals” encountered by the protagonist on her whistle stops bordered on the kind of colonial stereotyping I assumed Hollywood had abandoned ages ago. You know how they say that “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey”? In this case, the trip could not be over soon enough.