One of my best friends is a film critic here in Los Angeles. A perk of this particular job is that she sees movies a few days early and sometimes takes me along (this really is more of a perk for me than it is for her). Such was the case with Eat Pray Love. Having never read the book, everything I knew about the movie I had learned from the ever-present print ads, meaning I knew that Julia Roberts played a woman who wanted to eat gelato, marvel at something, and needed a champion instead of a man.
Turns out that was a pretty comprehensive understanding of the film. I walked out of the theater feeling as if I had just experienced a metaphysical vacuum, noticeable only for what wasn’t there.
Roberts plays Elizabeth Gilbert, an unhappy travel writer married to a man who seems bright and likeable, if immature and very, well, normal. They’re successful, middle-aged New Yorkers who talk of babies but don’t seem to mean it and have nice friends. The only interesting scene in the film comes about ten minutes in, as Elizabeth gets out of bed in the middle of the night and prays for the first time in her life. She tells God that she doesn’t know how it happened, but she is living a life she no longer understands or cares about, and she’s desperate for something, maybe anything, else. As she gets back in bed, her husband tells her that he’s not sure he wants to go to Aruba with her on her latest assignment, and she tells him she no longer wants to be married.
And so her new life begins. She soon starts dating a young and silly actor/yogi, and attempts to find her self in his oh-so-different world. As her divorce progresses and her new life becomes stale, her plan for personal revolution deepens. She will live in Italy for four months to eat and rest, then to India to pray at her boyfriend’s guru’s compound, and then she will end the year in Bali. And she does.
I am exactly the sort of person who should have loved this film. I am a young, upper-middle-class white woman. One of my core values is self-knowledge, and I tend towards being hopelessly self-obsessed. I have a Master’s degree in spiritual formation, have lived in a retreat house in silence and solitude for weeks in order to better know God, have seen multiple therapists over the course of many years, and love traveling enough to be tempted to believe that a new place will create a new me. I should have eaten this movie up.
I did not. Even I, a ridiculously easy target, couldn’t care about this woman as she desperately tried to reform her internal and external world. I couldn’t care because I couldn’t believe that she was succeeding.
This movie is at its best and most truthful in presenting Elizabeth’s problem. She is one of many women who, despite receiving more opportunities, more choices, and more money than ever before, aren’t happy. They have achieved what they were supposed to want and have found it, still, wanting. At one point Elizabeth says that she has been an active participant in designing and choosing every element of her life, and yet she is not at home in it. I am sure millions will relate with her as she kneels on the floor of her manicured living room, desperate for a sign from God that her life is worth living.
There will be reviewers out there who will hate Elizabeth for her need for change. Many will hate her for her abandonment of her husband and for her discontent with a very privileged life. In some ways they are right to, but this is not my problem with the film. I am fine with a character in a story starting out lost and wrong. I can understand why Elizabeth’s life felt empty, because (as any person of real faith would know), it was empty. The lovely trappings of her life had stopped fooling her and she saw them for what they were, meaningless.
It is not her need for a quest but the quest itself that troubles me. Though her locations become more exotic and her food infinitely more tasty (in fact, I think the eating part of her journey is the only real success), I can’t help but wonder how much actually changed for Elizabeth. Though her problem is real, her solution is completely inadequate.
This becomes particularly clear in India. Though Elizabeth devotes herself to a life of prayer and service at the commune, there is no indication that she has found a connection with God or a faith worth keeping. The best she can say as she prepares to move on is that God wants her to be herself (whoever that is, she still doesn’t know), that He exists in her, as her, and this gives her a little bit of comfort.
In Bali she finds someone to love, a charming Brazilian man with a broken heart (one of the few characters in the film worth watching), and yet when love for him threatens her newfound “balance” she wonders if she will lose everything she’s learned (I am still unclear on what exactly she had learned at this point). Because the relationship is the only concrete plot point, I won’t tell you what she decides, but I will tell you that it doesn’t matter. She has managed to eat, but she still knows nothing of prayer, and love is seen as a threat to her new identity. Elizabeth’s life has as little meaning on the beaches of Bali than it did in New York, besides the fact that her friends are a little more interesting and she’s got some good stories to tell.
I would like to re-write Elizabeth’s story. In my version she would never leave Italy. She could still learn to eat, but she would also learn to love and be a part of the community she develops there. And she would learn to really pray. She would have the privilege of praying to a real God with a name and a face and a history. She would learn that this God loved her, wholly and concretely, and that He had opinions about her life and plans for her. She would learn how to love her husband, and reconcile her old life to a new heart. She would find what she was looking for.
As I type this I realize I’ve seen the movie I just described, so skip Eat Pray Love and go rent Enchanted April instead.