Sunday, August 15, 2010

You Go, Girl . . . Eat that Pasta!

Ah . . . summer! It's a time filled with cookouts, fresh fruit, and summer blockbusters. The past few years, Hollywood has seen the value in what you could call "counterprogramming" during the summer -- releasing movies that don't involve explosions or robots or any of the mindless stuff we usually have shoved down our throats. One bit of "counterprogramming" that seems to have caught on is the release of movies geared towards adult women. I think of these films as literary chick flicks since they are based on books and feature women as their central characters; my sis refers to it as "You Go, Girl" cinema in that she says that is the response she imagines the audience is supposed to give when watching these tales. Last year, we had Julie and Julia, where Julie Powell and Julia Child found fulfillment through food and writing. This year, we get Eat, Pray, Love. If the audience I was part of this afternoon is any indication, the Vera Bradley-toting women of America are flocking to theaters en masse to gobble up one of the few films made with them in mind.

The film is based on a memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert chronicling her post-divorce quest for healing and enlightenment. This quest finds Gilbert spending a year in Italy, India, and Bali (funded by a healthy book advance) where she does exactly what the title implies -- eats a lot, prays a lot, and eventually finds a way to love a lot.

I read Gilbert's book earlier this summer. I quite liked it. I found Gilbert's voice completely engaging; at times, she reminded me a lot of my best friend. I could relate to Gilbert's quest for some sort of spiritual fulfillment, and I appreciated the sort of holistic approach she took to spirituality. She wasn't advocating a particular faith, just describing what worked for her. I loved the people who populated her adventures and the warmth with which Gilbert seemed to approach life in general. I looked forward to the film if only to see the places and people Gilbert described so beautifully brought to life.

In many respects, I quite liked the film. Ryan Murphy created a lovely film to look at -- incredible scenery and the way the food was filmed makes it a must-see for fans of "food porn." (I went home after the movie and immediately made a huge plate of pasta with fresh herbs.) He keeps the most memorable characters and manages to keep things moving along at a decent pace. The film clocks in at over two hours, but it felt like a pretty quick two hours. The third act did feel a bit rushed compared to the other segments, though, which is unfortunate in that it is during her visit to Bali that Liz finds potential love with a handsome Brazilian, played here by Javier Bardem. Bardem's Felipe is so charming and richly portrayed that I wanted more of him. (Well, when isn't more Javier Bardem a good thing??) I would have preferred to see the opening scenes with Liz and her ineffectual husband (Billy Crudup) and her young actor lover (James Franco) cut down more to allow for more Bardem.

My real issue with the film, though, was Liz herself. I loved the Liz Gilbert of the book -- wry, intelligent, and conflicted. I rooted for her and identified with her. In the film, though, Liz takes the form of Julia Roberts. I'm not one of those people who rolls my eyes at the mere mention of Julia Roberts. In fact, I typically like her. When she's firing on all of her acting cylinders, you remember why she's the biggest female movie star of the past twenty years. There's a joy she brings to the screen, a glint in her eye, that can be infectious. The problem is that it's hard for Julia to become lost in a character the way that other actresses are. You never, ever forget that you're watching Julia Roberts because she rarely if ever strays from that Julia Roberts formula -- that smile, that laugh, that vocal inflection never change whether she's playing a hooker with a heart of gold, a crusading legal aide, or a writer on a spiritual quest. She's ALWAYS Julia Roberts. Because she's always Julia, you never really worry about her because Julia always pulls through and wins the guy, defeats the evil corporation, or finds peace. With another actress in the role, perhaps Liz's angst would have seemed a little more real and silenced the critics who are writing the movie off as the tale of a self-centered yuppie whiner. Because no one can ever believe that Julia has any significant problems (and certainly would never have any issues with her conscience), it's hard to believe in Liz's crisis as portrayed by Julia. There's also the fact that Julia is about a decade older than Gilbert was when she went on her own journey. For some reason, the existential angst that Liz faces seems more realistic coming from someone in her early-to-mid 30's than in her 40's. The part would have worked better in the hands of, say, Amy Adams or Jennifer Garner, but Amy and Jennifer can't open a movie like Julia can, so there you have it -- Julia Roberts as Liz Gilbert whether it works or not.

I don't want this to sound like I didn't like the movie; I really did. Unlike many who've criticized the movie, I didn't find Liz self-serving or lacking in sympathy. I could relate to her need to work out a new definition of who she was and who she wanted to be. While most of us couldn't afford to take a year off to explore foreign lands (or be lucky enough to wind up in Javier Bardem's bed), I refuse to begrudge Liz because she did. Take the film for what it is -- entertaining escapism -- and leave it at that, and you'll find yourself vicariously living a pretty cool adventure through some beautiful terrain. What more could you want on a summer afternoon?

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