Sunday, June 17, 2012

Eat Pray Love Kvetch



The Julia Roberts movie Eat Pray Love breezed through these islands on its theatrical release more than a year ago without causing much of a stir in the palm trees. The place where I live is an island much like Bali, without all the foreigners looking for their piece of paradise on earth. What my island also lacks, alas, are the Balinese who have turned their demi-paradise into profit.

I had no chance to see the movie in a cinema, since there isn't a single cinema on my island. Nor is there a single public library, so I had no chance to read Elizabeth Gilbert's best-selling book on which the movie was based. I don't read best-sellers, even inadvertently, since I'm not interested in what everyone else is reading.

But I caught an airing of the movie recently, and I found it entertaining enough to justify a few comments. Julia Roberts is a movie star whose signature on a contract can guarantee that a movie gets made. While her taste in scripts isn't infallible, she has cultivated her stardom well and isn't afraid to take certain risks. And she can occasionally act.

Roberts plays Elizabeth Gilbert, who has just divorced Steven (Billy Crudup) who still loves her, has a fling with David before the divorce is finalized, and then embarks (thanks to a $200,000 advance from her publisher) on a year-long trip that takes her to Italy (shot in Rome and Naples), India, and Bali. In all three places, rather conveniently, she completes a stage in her development as a complete human being.

The earting part of the story, in Italy of course, is the most stimulating. An old landlady tells Roberts that the only thing she doesn't allow in her pensione is strange men spending the night, because "All you American girls want in Italy is pasta and sausage!"

The praying part of the story is a whopping cliché by now. And it isn't praying, but meditating. But Richard Jenkins contributes a marvelous performance as a fellow American learning how to forgive himself.

The loving part is predictable (this is a "woman's movie").

I have always been struck by the churlishness of celebrities who announce in interviews that they are "taking a year off". Gilbert was already a successful free-lance journalist when she took a year off to gather material for her book. Even if you're OK with this plot, which is reportedly actual events, simply reverse the sexes of the four principle characters and the story could be mistaken for a sequel to Montherlant's The Girls - further adventures of the chauvinist arch-egoist Costals.

Ask yourself if this protagonist deserves your sympathy. Ms. Roberts does alot of crying in the movie, but over what? Over her mistakes? Her foolishness? She passes through her marriage and her love affairs exactly like she passes through Italy, India, and Bali - like a tourist.

She encounters people who have real problems: an Indian woman who is compelled to marry a man she hardly knows, an American who lost his son because of his alcoholism, a Balinese woman who goes broke getting legal custody of her daughter in a country in which women have few rights.

The scenes an Indian ashram are particularly risible, with Westerners flocking there looking for what Gita Mehta called "karma cola", a pre-packaged, junk-food version of Eastern mysticism. It has been a joke ever since the Beatles consulted the Maharishi Mahesh Mashed Potatoes.

But what is most objectionable about this woman is how cavalierly she treats all her chances for happiness. Like most Americans, she suffers from the delusion that she is entitled to be happy, because it says so in the Constitution. Most people in the world are lucky is they're granted one opportunity for happiness. Gilbert/Roberts acts as if there is an unlimited supply of opportunities for her.

On a positive note, the movie does one thing better than 99% of Hollywood movies: it uses music carefully. And what splendid music! I found João and Bebel Gilberto to be particularly, and strangely, apposite to the lush Bali scenes. Incidentally, Robert Richardson, Oliver Stone's and Martin Scorsese's DP of choice, photographed the film, and brought out the beauty of all three places without them looking like they look in the postcards.

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