First of all, I haven’t read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, the source material of the film by the same name. Having no exposure to the author’s own words, I can’t comment very much on her personal journey as all I have to speak on is her narrative as presented by the movie.
With that said, there is one thing that immediately strikes me upon watching the movie: Elizabeth Gilbert is selfish, an utterly self-absorbed and completely selfish woman.
At least that’s how director Ryan Murphy paints her. Whether by design or not (and I can’t imagine that Murphy did this on purpose), the movie does Elizabeth Gilbert (Julia Roberts) no justice in portraying her divorce. The divorce was seemingly precipitated by…well, nothing more than an abstract sentiment that she is “stuck”. Her decision to dissolve the marriage was largely unjustified, seemingly one settled upon willy nilly. Why does she divorce her husband Steven (Billy Crudup)? Because he wanted to go back to school? The movie hints at the notion that it had to do with his inability to settle down into a single pursuit. Ironically, Elizabeth is the one feeling stuck in a rut. As a man who highly values the seemingly impossible ideal of lifelong monogamy, I was rooting for Steven. I felt his indignation at her unilateral decision, and I entirely sympathized with him when he said that his newfound single passion was to dedicate himself to their marriage. He showed loyalty and dedication where Elizabeth showed nothing but selfishness.
In a scene that perhaps was an attempt to explain why Elizabeth would want to divorce her husband, she yells out that Steven doesn’t listen. “You don’t listen!” is not really much of a good reason to end a marriage though, especially when your husband quite earnestly expresses his genuine desire to make the marriage work. Presumably, Elizabeth was thinking of the time that they were driving back from that party. Steven was having a life-changing thought then. He was thinking of doing something greater with his life, something more than making crepes and wedding cakes for people. It would seem then that Elizabeth is the one who is rather self-absorbed. She complains that her husband is not listening, but the truth is that she is the one who isn’t listening to her partner. While Steven was thinking of furthering his education, Elizabeth balks at what she perceives to be his instability. It’s a bit hypocritical, as she’s the one thinking about doing all this traveling. Really, it was her own sense of restlessness that serves as the impetus to the destruction of their marriage.
The only lame attempt the movie made at garnering any sympathy for Elizabeth was showing her crying and praying to God for guidance. Julia Roberts’ emotionally raw performance, played up with close-ups and dark dramatic lighting, was designed to elicit sympathy, though it’s undeserved. Having received no reply from God (and I have been there myself, so it’s not like I can’t sympathize with those moments), she callously returns to bed and tells her husband that she no longer wishes to be married to him with such an unsettling ease, as though she were telling him that she wanted to have Chinese for dinner.
With only a short scene as a buffer, Elizabeth is next seen watching an awful play in which she finds herself pining for a hot young stud on the stage. With the grace of a teenaged boy fumbling to unclasp his first bra, the movie hits us over the head with an expositional line delivered by the play’s actress: “…the only way I can recover is becoming infatuated with someone else.”
Now, at this point, we really have no clue how long it’s been since Elizabeth made her unilateral decision to divorce her husband (seemingly without giving him much of a fighting chance). But without any scenes of sympathy, we’re shown that she’s already getting the hots for this young buck. We haven’t seen her all torn up about destroying Steve’s life and making a mockery of the vows that they made to each other, vows that Steven admirably argues that he takes very importantly during the divorce lawyer scene. All we see is that she moves on from her five-year marriage with relative ease. How are we supposed to feel sorry for her when, at this point, all we’ve seen is thatshedecides to divorce her husband without discussing it and decides to shack up with some hot young failing actor?
In any case, she moves on from the marriage and jumps into a relationship with David (James Franco), the aforementioned hot young thing. David’s seduction started on the stage, but it becomes fully realized when they meet after his performance. Elizabeth cleverly attributes the shameful walk-outs to herself, saying, “I’m not everyone’s cup of tea,” to which David replies, “I doubt that.” I don’t usually blaspheme, but Jesus H. Christ, how do they write that stuff? David’s so-called charm is only made bearable by James Franco’s boyish good looks. Whether or not the real-life David actually said those words, it was just entirely nauseous to see an accomplished and well-traveled woman fall for the pretty-boy act. If this is what counts for charm, well, I’d easily be a prolific Casanova. The rest of the romance is portrayed just as unwieldily as the way it began.
In time, Elizabeth becomes frustrated with this new relationship as well and up and decides to lose herself in exotic locations to do some soul searching, abandoning yet another relationship due to her restlessness. Finally, after half an hour of agonizing backstory, we begin Elizabeth’s journey across the world. And to be honest, the journey is an underwhelming one. She arrives in Italy and the first thing she does is complain that there isn’t enough water to bathe in. Her travels are mired with such petty complaints, underscoring her privileged self-centeredness. The rest of the movie does very little to impart a sense of spiritual awakening in Elizabeth’s journey, if such an awakening even happened.
While the book and the movie may seem to some people as a champion of women’s liberation and an inspirational tale of female freedom, it is really nothing more than a self-absorbed tale of immaturity and irresponsibility. There is an early scene in which Elizabeth holds up a garment of baby’s clothing to herself and asks, “Does this come in my size?” It’s a befitting question: Elizabeth is self-indulgent, selfish, and restless. Not a far cry from a baby, is she?
Some may say that my judgment of Elizabeth is harsh and inherently rooted in a male bias against female freedom. But honestly, I’d shake my head in disapproval just as emphatically if it was a man instead of a woman who hopped in bed with a younger woman immediately during his ongoing divorce. I’d have just as much contempt for a man as for a woman if he decided to divorce his wife without so much as a discussion. And I’d spit just as hard at the feet of a man who restlessly leaves two relationships just to travel the world to “find oneself,” whatever that means.
In sum, the movie really paints Elizabeth Gilbert in a very unflattering light. She leaves a five-year marriage on a whim and immediately takes on a new young lover; and being unable to find satisfaction in that new relationship, decides to travel the world to find spiritual peace and balance. It’s not a tale that one can readily relate to on a truly meaningful level, because – as some critics have mentioned – not everybody can leave everything at the drop of a hat to go on an international soul search.
No, it’s a tale of self-indulgence, selfishness. Not only is it unflattering, the movie is entirely incapable of conveying the emotions that were intended. From the awful attempt to convey charm and romance to the spiritual revelation that Elizabeth found in her travels, it is probably better if the movie didn’t exist. At least then, if we would bother to read the book, we might find it in ourselves to project some sympathy for Ms. Gilbert. The movie is clumsy with the story and fails to express any sense of transcendence or the magic of spiritual self-discovery. Whether that is because the book itself was full of manure (in which case, I cannot blame Ryan Murphy or the screenwriters as you can only work with what you’ve got), I don’t know, but it certainly isn’t worth the acclaim it got. Really though, the true travesty is that Elizabeth Gilbert got rich off this poor excuse for a story when there are other far more worthy written works, with the money serving only to fuel her narcissism.