Eat Pray Love opens August 13

With a title like “Eat Pray Love,” it’s hard not to know what you are getting into. Couple that with the fact that it’s based on the extremely popular memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert and starring the queen of love herself, Academy Award winner Julia Roberts, you kind of figure that the title is kind of literal. I’m not making fun of it, don’t get me wrong, but besides the points I made above making this a powerful female magnet for theaters this weekend, you kind of know exactly what to expect … and maybe that’s part of the problem.

Directed by the extremely talented Ryan Murphy, an executive producer (and sometimes director) on the smash hit television series “Glee” and regular writer on the now ended, but critically acclaimed “Nip/Tuck,” “Eat Pray Love” is an odyssey of discovery throughout some of the most mystically magical and magnificently beautiful countries of our world. Told in basically four acts, “Eat Pray Love” follows an unfortunately lost Liz (Roberts) as she tries to find herself inside a sad, loveless marriage. Her husband, Stephen (the always watchable Billy Crudup) is a wandering dreamer who is blissfully following the motions and feels the sting of heartbreak when Liz dramatically makes her move.

Filmed in New York, Italy, India and Bali, Murphy clearly knows how to direct his way through paradise. While not having a huge resume, Murphy’s steady hand and careful shots make this film visually stunning and careful around the personal moments that Roberts has to find herself in. At the same time, Murphy does well at allowing each environment and country to earn its own voice allowing each to become characters in the film. The places reflect Liz’s growth as much as they reflect their gorgeous heritage and people.

Roberts is at home in this film. Sensitive to the protagonist and her woes and clearly having fun within the experience, Roberts plays Liz, less like the stereotypical depressed 4o-something that I think we are used to seeing and more like a person living life for the first time. Her banter with cast mates is intriguing and as the journey goes on, she works extremely hard to keep Liz relevant, interesting and important to the viewer.

Rounding out the cast of notables is an extremely charming and grown-up James Franco (“Milk,” “Spider-Man”) the always-impressive Richard Jenkins (“The Visitor,” “Burn After Reading”) and the smoldering Academy Award winning Javier Bardem (“No Country for Old Men,” “The Sea Inside”). Not only is this a film about personal discovery, but it’s also about the men she meets along the way and for me, that is where the film kind of loses its magic.

While following Liz on her journey, the film is extremely powerful when it shows her earning her independence and making steps forward with the help of her new friends. It’s clearly set-up that the reason for this self-imposed isolation is because she can’t remember the last time she was truly alone and not in an intimate relationship. In Italy, the first stop on her quest, Liz gains so much ground and the people she meets are so interesting that unfortunately, in comparison, stops two and three on the map kind of get old fairly quickly. As beautiful as Roberts is, the scenery and flavor of Italian life really tunes well with the tempo of the film and draws the audience into her first steps of the journey. I wouldn’t go as far as say that the three countries represent the three words of the title, because, while Roberts does stuff her face delightfully with the Italian cuisine, she learns a little about all three at each step of the journey. This is both refreshing and thankful.

However, like I said, after that, it kind of gets kind of old. Liz’s time in India is interesting, but the calmness she learns in Italy all kind of falls away and rather than seeing someone continue to move forward, you kind of just see a retread of what you just saw. Same thing for Bali. The saving grace in both of these lands is the men she meets. Jenkins and Bardem are amazing to watch and each of them plays their roles well, but, at the same time, takes some of the groove out of Liz’s newness.

As a story, and maybe I’m the one just missing something, this film is extremely effective when it is about Liz and Liz alone. When a love interest is introduced, the story falls back into the basic chick-flick kind of a film and that really is too bad because the overall potential of allowing Liz to find happiness in herself alone, without the support of a man would make for a much more powerful message. Don’t get me wrong, even I was rooting for her to be happy, but her movie mojo falls away when it becomes more about the romance and less about her own, personal journey.

Overall, this is a very likable film. Well made, well acted and fun, even at its most depressing, “Eat Pray Love” is a film that women will eat up, pray friends will go see again and love to watch over and over on DVD. With an all-star cast and a wonderful leading lady, it may be easy to look past its faults, but with a run time that is entirely too long and stereotypical “Hollywood” type of happy ending, “Eat Pray Love” proves to just be another average romantic stop on the map for filmgoers.

3.5 out of 5 Bowls of Pasta

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