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Julia Roberts travels the world, makes love to Spaghetti, finds her balance in 'Eat Pray Love'

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Eat Pray Love  is one of the biggest surprises of the empty summer, for better or worse. Julia Roberts in 'Eat Pray Love." Photo: Sony PicturesOf course, the book upon which the film is based, a real life account of how Elizabeth Gilbert  left her frantic New York life to embark on a quest of self discovery, is widely acclaimed.

However, the presence of uber chick flick star Julia Roberts, as well as Hollywood’s tendency to dumb down, manipulate, and sugar coat material, left me fairly worried as the lights faded in the theater. What a revelation it was then to see that Eat Pray Love is not only watchable, but thoughtful, touching, restrained, and very faithful to the source material.

The movie starts with Gilbert’s voiceover, setting the tone for the film. During the opening sequence, she narrates as we come to see she has traveled all the way to Indonesia only to ask an all knowing sage about the most troubling concept in her life. Cancer? Death? The secret of life? No, Elizabeth wants to know if her rocky marriage will last.

Perhaps Gilbert should have paid more attention to those early signs. Several scenes later back in New York, the heroine is seen sobbing to herself at two in the morning, desperately wanting out of her relationship. When she finds the strength to initiate the divorce, this begins a period of expected turmoil and overall crisis.

The solution? Immediately falling back into the arms of a younger, hotter version (James Franco) of the husband she just left. As she comes to realize the same patterns are indeed repeating, the question of a complete mental and spiritual overhaul comes into play. Coming to the conclusion that her zest for being alive has all but been swallowed by a life she created but can’t see herself in, Elizabeth sets out on a risky year long journey to re-discover herself in Italy, India, and Indonesia.

Eat Pray Love is divided into three sections, each one entirely distinct and bearing a strong sense of detail and individuality. I would be hard pressed to say that the attention devoted to any one of these segments outweighs the other, and each feels absolutely integral to the whole. The wonderful vibrancy and laid back nature of Italy is captured exquisitely trough the mouthwatering food and colorful nature of the locals. This is certainly sharply juxtaposed by the poverty and laborious lifestyle of India, a place that requires the utmost patience and discipline. Finally, Bali is the nirvana of the trip, an island paradise where there is an opportunity for Gilbert put her new life into motion, finding the strength to maintain her balance while facing her fear of love.

Director/writer Ryan Murphy and screenwriter Jennifer Salt  have created an adaptation that is bound to please fans. He seamlessly blends all sections of the film into a satisfying, cohesive whole. The movie hardly cheapens or shortchanges the tone or messages of the book, depicting them in a calculated, two hour plus fashion. The drama is affecting, but often understated, and the romantic aspects are free of sap.

The performances are all sturdy across the board. Roberts carries the film, and as, usual, remains a very likeable onscreen persona (if a bit old to play this part). She also manages to create a real woman that audiences will be able to see Gilbert in, despite that pesky megastar persona Roberts has now acquired. Richard Jenkins  absolutely shines as a broken man who ventured to India to free himself of a painful past. Finally, Javier Bardem, the man that steals Gilbert’s heart in Bali, is wonderful, bringing real pain and humanity to what could have been a stock prince charming role.

Eat Pray Love is not without its faults. The movie certainly is an affective journey at points, but this is also Gilbert’s journey, not always the audiences. The way in which she wraps up the story does raise some flags, as the initial purpose of the experiment seems to become muddled by the conclusion. However, that also makes the story more realistic. Also, viewers across the globe may find it a tad difficult to resonate or relate to a story that remains simply impractical to most of them. Who really has the money to drop everything a take a year voyage around the world? She does attempt to indicate that her re-awakening transcends this specific account and that if individuals can truly let go of who they were, and open themselves to the possibilities of new experiences, life will indeed rush in. The verdict is still out on that, but Eat Pray Love still remains great entertainment and a trip of self discovery worth taking.

Contact Jim Teti at jteti@philly2philly.com

Photos: Sony Pictures