Eat, Pray, Run To The Bathroom

It might be weird to start off this blog with an entry on the movie Eat Pray Love, especially since it's kind of late to be running a review, but I just watched it a few days ago, so bear with me. Allow me to say first of all that this is not your average chick flick but a movie that purports to be looking out for your spiritual health, which makes it dangerous. It may be worth mentioning that I am not morally opposed to movies that are simply bad by any stretch of the imagination, which is why I was okay with watching it in the first place. I watched and to a certain extent enjoyed all of the Twilight movies, even though they were inarguably awful. But I actually found this movie disturbing. It is not a mere indulgence of a womanly getting-away-from-it-all fantasy in the cinematic form of the delicate mouth-watering dishes Julia Roberts' character is shown indulging in throughout the "Italy" portion of this (dare I say) film, nor is it even the equivalent of the delightfully trashy microwaved lasagna that comprised the majority of my calorie intake today. It is, and I apologize for my inappropriate language, but it is very much along the lines of the Fettuccine Alfredo at the Olive Garden.

Fettuccine Alfredo as it is known and served in the U.S. is basically a plateful of pasta and pure fat. In my experience, it has very little actual flavor, and I find it hard to believe that anyone genuinely likes it. I acknowledge that I may be wrong here, but my brain just refuses to process the possibility. I have to believe people only like the idea of it, because they equate “fat” with indulgence. It's the kind of thing you shovel down before lurching off with your friends to watch Eat Pray Love, another example of something you're supposed to love for the idea of what it is rather than the end product. I looked over most of the reviews on Amazon, and a large part of what I see is, on the one hand, devotees wholeheartedly declaring “either you get this movie or you don't,” and on the other hand, those who dislike the main character on paper.

Now, I don't actually agree with either of these points of view. The notion of the “sympathetic character” has in recent history become something of a buzz-phrase that has trickled down from academia into the realm of consumerism, where a character is seen as a commodity who can by way of certain objective factors be more or less sympathetic, the way food can be more or less salty. It's understandable for people to want characters to whom they can relate before the fact, but I don't view it as legitimate criticism or any guide to how much I am likely to enjoy a movie. So as much as I can understand the annoyance with the very premise of the unhappy divorcée jetting off to exotic locales to find herself, I don't actually have a problem with this plot or this character. (Meaning the idea of either, before being put on the screen.)

The main problem with the character of Liz Gilbert in practice is a tragic lack of development. From what I can glean from the meager amount of information the audience is given, she is someone who has never experienced things being totally out of control and is consequently so afraid of this happening that she tries to create scenarios of helplessness for herself ahead of time. She is constantly controlling everything in her life and so she paradoxically can't control what's going on in her life. This is a potentially great setup, but nothing comes of it. The entire movie rather seems to be a series of false revelations she has set up for herself, and so nothing ever really happens. Which brings us to the “plot.”

This movie never commits to really being about anything. It's the kind of thing a lot of people would say is “one woman's journey,” and it wraps up with a neat little summary statement about accepting everyone you meet as a teacher, which is cute, but it's questionable whether we see any of this in action. It attempts complicity with the audience but never makes clear what that complicity is based on, whether it is a modern woman's dilemma devolving into romantic comedy territory, or some clumsily peddled idea of how real adults in the real world are supposed to behave. It plays off of Americans' insecurities regarding money and independence (things most Americans don't have enough of), milking this subject in the same way bad comedians can often get a cheap laugh by cracking a not-funny joke about sex; people laugh out of self-consciousness, because they are afraid of what it will mean if they don't laugh. The fact that this movie involves a woman leaving her husband, putting all of her stuff into storage and committing to traveling around the world is a cover for the fact that it isn't about anything. Yet it speaks to us in a wise, faux-spiritual tone, as though to suggest that what it has to say is very, very important and that our lives will be less rich if we don't pay attention to it.

The makers of this film shirk responsibility in much the same way Liz shirks responsibility, deciding passively what something does and doesn't mean based on the way it turns out rather than taking the initiative to create a story. Some of the shaky rhetoric declares otherwise and in fact tries to further evade responsibility for this problem by waving it in our faces, but ultimately we are left with nothing; the story picks us up and drops us without ever allowing us to enter it. Of course I'm sure a lot of people have found meaning in it and I don't fault them for it. I simply give all the credit to them and none to Eat Pray Love, which gives you about as much to work with as an unnumbered set of Connect-The-Dots.

Finally, what I found most disturbing and also most interesting was the shameless portrayal of the American colonialist attitude of always charging forward as a substitute for examining one's life, declaring foreigners friends but ultimately just using up whatever resources they have to offer, storing them in a place of acquired nostalgia, and moving ahead to the next thing. (If the movie could in fact be said to be about anything, it's this, though of course it is most definitely NOT about this.) The setup for Liz's journey positively reeks of “manifest destiny.” The foreign people and locales in this movie serve solely as a backdrop to her problems and are defined only by how they can help her with her life. The fact that she is generous with them does nothing to offset this. This whole scenario COULD have been exploited in an interesting way, but that would have made it a different movie. It could in fact have been interesting if it were approached with anything other than an overriding sense of moral laziness, but it wasn't, and I think that was what bothered me the most about it. Eat Pray Love is way, way too good at painting a picture of a certain toxic attitude prevalent in modern America when it doesn't intend to say anything about it but rather actively participate in it.

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