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The Oprahfication of Religion (18506)

Movie Review: Eat Pray Love’s Spiritual Tourism and Consumerist Redemption

08/13/2010 Comments (34)
Sony Pictures

Julia Roberts embarks on spiritual and culinary quests in Eat Pray Love.

– Sony Pictures

In our consumerist therapeutic culture, if your life has fallen apart and you want to find yourself, heal yourself, indulge yourself, and possibly find God — or whatever is the next best thing — you can take a year off and travel to exotic places, like Italy, India and Indonesia, if you can afford it.

If you can’t afford it, then you may be able to fund the trip with an advance from a publisher on the memoir you will write after your trip. If you’re lucky, Oprah will like your book, and it will spend up to three years on The New York Times best-seller list.

And if you can’t do that either, then you can at least buy the book, watch the Oprah show, and go see the movie. There are lots of books out there to choose from, and some movies too, and no end of Oprah shows, to learn all about what it is that is missing in your life and what you can do about it, or what other people have done about it who have more money than you.

Elizabeth Gilbert is such a person, and her best-selling memoir Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia is such a book. The book — and the movie starring Julia Roberts — suggest a fusion of Julie & Julia and Under the Tuscan Sun, with a dash of Eastern exoticism and pop spirituality. Originally (like Julie & Julia) a yearlong writing project by an introspective, self-absorbed American writer who (as in Under the Tuscan Sun) divorces her husband after an affair (in this case it’s the wife who has the affair; in Tuscan Sun it was the husband), it’s the chronicle of a woman’s journey to discover herself by recording her adventures in food and/or travel.

Clearly, there’s a market for this sort of thing. Gilbert is apparently an engaging writer, and even the vicarious experience of other countries and cultures can be enjoyable. Americans have an abiding affinity for consumerist self-indulgence and for pop spirituality, and a marriage of the two is a winning combination. “God never slams a door in your face,” Gilbert writes, “without opening a box of Girl Scout cookies.” Yep, there’ll be no shortage of people eating that one up. I suspect there may be a lot of people out there who feel as if doors have been slammed in their faces and who find the idea of opening a box of Girl Scout cookies, or even opening a book that talks about Girl Scout cookies, more gratifying than waiting for God to open a window.

In particular, this seems to be truer of women. Recent studies suggest that married women are on average less happy than their husbands, which may have something to do with the recurring theme of divorce and marital unrest in books in this vein. (Julie & Julia seems an exception, but see Julie Powell’s follow-up book, Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession, detailing her affair with an old flame.)

For what it’s worth, at least one book of this sort reflects a male point of view: Andy Raskin’s The Ramen King and I: How the Inventor of Instant Noodles Fixed My Love Life. Raskin’s romantic woes were different from his female colleagues, involving too much sex with too many partners to keep track of. Still, I think this supports my impression that the genre is largely about wish fulfillment, only the women writers are catering to different wishes.

Just going by the title, Eat Pray Love sounds like an affordable DIY project that you can undertake without leaving home, even if you won’t be eating bucatini all’Amatriciana in some Roman trattoria or praying in Sanskrit in a Hindu ashram. The title is a little misleading, though.

In a way, it’s the missing commas. The book’s correct title, it seems, is Eat, Pray, Love, although the cover designers omitted the commas, and the movie version is unambiguously titled Eat Pray Love. This makes it sound as if the three verbs are ingredients all mixed together in a life well lived. In fact, each of the title words represents a separate stage in Gilbert’s yearlong journey, one for each of Gilbert’s three destinations — a schematic approach that isn’t clearly spelled out in advance in the movie version.

First come four months in Italy, where repeated shots of St. Peter’s in Rome seem to suggest that praying may be just around the corner. But no, in Italy, it seems Liz is only interested in feeding her body. It isn’t until India that she shows much interest in feeding her soul. In the end comes Bali, where she finds love.

Liz isn’t really trying to learn what these cultures have to offer. She’s like a student auditing classes rather than for credit, having decided in advance which parts of each teachers’ curricula really matter. In Italy, the lesson is to relax and enjoy life: il dolce far niente (the sweetness of doing nothing). Americans, Italians agree, are addicted to doing and achieving; they know entertainment, but not enjoyment. The movie omits the flip side of the coin, acknowledged in the book, that Italian young men tend to be mama’s boys living at home and catered to by their mothers well into adulthood.

In Italy, even in the Eternal City itself, religious reference points are basically limited to those images of St. Peter’s and a shot of a couple of nuns eating gelato. Gelato figured significantly in my recent pilgrimage to Italy, as I mentioned in my own account at my Register blog, but the shots of St. Peter’s only underscore that Liz is in a major pilgrimage destination. Her strange incuriosity regarding Italy’s spiritual heritage is all the odder in light of her spiritual aspirations during her time in India. (The book at least mentions Liz going to Mass at some point; I’m speaking here of the film.) Can you imagine a story about a spiritually curious person spending several months in Israel or Egypt or Tibet and completely ignoring local religious life?

Of course, had Liz explored Western religious tradition, she wouldn’t have found such flattering and fashionable nuggets of wisdom as “God dwells in me as me.” The book version expresses this in a local catchphrase too: the mantra “Ham-sa” (I am That).

The movie, though, prefers the bumper-sticker epigrams of Liz’s Balinese medicine man and Richard Jenkins’ fellow traveler from Texas that Liz meets in India, whom you can tell is profound by how obnoxious he is. (He calls Liz “Groceries,” for starters.) Jenkins’ performance is winning praise, particularly for a powerful emotional scene, although I liked Richard Dreyfuss better in a similar role in a generally more unpleasant film, the Nia Vardalos vehicle My Life in Ruins.

Don’t expect much attention to central Hindu ideas like karma and reincarnation, in any case. Even Eastern religion is all very well up to a point — or, as Liz’s Balinese medicine man puts it, “Not too much God, not too much selfishness.” It’s the Oprahfication of religion; the movie is ultimately no more authentically interested in Hindu or Indian culture generally than it is in Italian culture. Liz’s time in India is spiritual tourism, as her time in Italy was culinary tourism; it’s all a self-help consumerist approach to world cultures.

Roberts is both an asset and a liability — an asset because we can’t help liking her and a liability for the same reason. One of the book’s more winsome qualities is a sense of self-critical frankness that the movie can’t bear to apply to our adorable Julia. This is a problem from the outset, since the movie has no idea why Liz is suddenly so unhappy in her marriage after eight years with her husband. (In the book, Gilbert describes her husband watching her “fall apart for months now, behaving like a madwoman (we both agreed on that word).” Nobody wants to see Roberts behaving like a madwoman, but the down side is that her discontent seems rooted in nothing.

The movie actually makes a stab at blaming God by shifting a scene: In the book, Gilbert’s marriage is already falling apart when she first goes to Bali and meets the medicine man who tells her that she will be married twice, once short, once long. The movie chooses to open with this scene, so it’s like God himself has pronounced the marriage’s death sentence. Attempting another explanation, the 42-year-old Roberts actually utters the line “We were too young to get married.” (Coincidentally, just last week Suz and I celebrated our 19th anniversary. Roberts has a year on me and over a year on Suz.) Okay, Gilbert was a decade younger at the time, but still.

One interesting symptom of marital malaise does come across from the book: Liz doesn’t want to have a baby. “Having a baby,” someone helpfully tells her, “is like getting a tattoo on your face. You want to be really sure you’re committed.” Well, yeah, that’s why we call marriage a commitment. (This actually comes across in the book, which spells out that the couple’s life plan always included offspring.) In our contraceptive culture, of course, the idea of openness to life as an integral dimension of marriage is so foreign it might as well be Sanskrit. Actually, Liz seems more comfortable with Sanskrit. By the end of the film, she has learned to love again, but openness to life seems nowhere on the horizon.

The portrayal of Liz’s husband Steven (Billy Crudup) is worth noting. He contests the divorce (something he could do in New York, which is only now at this writing in the process of passing no-fault divorce laws), and his pleas for their marriage almost border on touching. He declares emphatically that the vows he took till death mean something to him, and when Liz angrily says that he is so full of contrary dreams that he never chose one thing to pursue, he shoots back, “Okay, I’ll choose! I choose you!”

Ultimately, though, Steven is angry and petulant. (At one point, he starts to sing a song he says he wrote for her, but he’s not exactly trying to woo her back.) Obviously, it wouldn’t do for women in the audience to wonder why exactly Liz is leaving him.

Later, there’s a key scene in which Liz imagines herself dancing with her ex-husband on their wedding day, a fantasy sequence that offers her the amicable parting of ways and mutual forgiveness that she couldn’t have in real life. What the moment is really about, of course, is Liz forgiving herself. Forgiving yourself can be a legitimate part of healing, but of course authentic forgiveness requires clear acknowledgement of wrongdoing — and if it’s yourself that you are forgiving, you should be sure that you’re sorry and willing, if possible, to seek the forgiveness of others and make amends. What exactly did Liz do wrong again?

Steven D. Greydanus is editor and chief critic at Decent Films. He also blogs at NCRegister.com.

Content advisory: Sexual themes including extramarital and nonmarital relationships (nothing explicit); brief rear male nudity; some profanity and crass language; muddled religious themes. Mature viewing.

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