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MOVIE REVIEW

Eat Pray Love

Happy meals: Roberts shines as a divorcee on a journey to find herself

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By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / August 13, 2010

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There has been some debate about what to call “Eat Pray Love.’’ Is it a romantic comedy? Is it a chick flick? This is silly, since, in truth, it’s neither. It’s simply a Julia Roberts movie, often a lovely one. As Sylvester Stallone clings to relevance in “The Expendables,’’ how shocking to see this 42-old-year woman work at the height of her charm and without the aid of nostalgia and cluster bombs.

We seem never to tire in the debate over whether we love Roberts. This has been true for the 20 years since “Pretty Woman.’’ And in an age in which nothing seems to last, that this woman still inspires houses of worship and camps of disdain is both a relief and a cause for celebration. She opts to carry so few movies that one with only her name above the title qualifies as an event.

This event is not one to see on an empty stomach, or even on a stomach full of dubious calories. A simple bowl of spaghetti that appears here makes a cardboard tray of nachos seem rather cruel. So does the sight of Roberts twirling her fork around the bowl. But it’s a moment that satisfies several appetites: the hunger for a good meal, on the one hand; the hunger for a real personality on the other. It’s hard to beat the ecstasy of seeing America’s greatest working movie star blissfully — not to mention, bravely — shove that meal in her mouth.

What the box office says is one thing. What the camera sees is something else. And what the camera sees in Roberts, more now than ever, is a woman who, at the dawn of middle age, has ripened into an actor alluringly at ease with her sensuality. (It started last year in “Duplicity.’’) For proof, there she is in this new movie doing nothing more than sitting on the floor in a negligee with a plate of food. In that moment, it’s all the sex anybody needs.

“Eat Pray Love’’ is based on Elizabeth Gilbert’s hit 2006 memoir about the trip she took to Italy, India, and Bali after her marriage ended. The object was for a recently depressed extrovert to try being alone with a broken heart and busted spirit. She winds up creating a lot of new friendships, anyway. The book was brisk, vague, glib, and a touch smug. Its wild popularity was partly because Gilbert had turned her highly relatable emotional crisis into a kind of fairy tale of self-actualization. The best thing about it was the exuberance of the writing, and reading Gilbert alternately praise and pan herself, the only voice I heard was Roberts’s.

The movie dials back both the book’s self-congratulation and its sense of unhappiness. Roberts, for once, has no sharp comebacks or nasty stares or tirades to rescue her. Here, she’s not smarter about life than everyone she meets. Often, she’s just as confounded by it as the rest of us. She’s not wise or scheming or better than you. She’s almost unrecognizably vulnerable yet often characteristically happy. This is the only star I can think of whose laugh — that braying honk — is so contagious.

The television impresario of the moment, Ryan Murphy (“Nip/Tuck,’’ “Glee’’), adapted the memoir with Jennifer Salt, a writer and producer on “Nip/Tuck.’’ His previous film adapted another memoir, Augusten Burroughs’s “Running With Scissors.’’ Aside from a ferocious piece of acting from Annette Bening, it was a lot of soundtrack and art direction. “Eat Pray Love’’ is more successful. You’d never know it from his shows, but Murphy has a natural enough sense of how people talk, observe, and affect each other. The occasional silences are welcome, too. There’s an early scene in which Elizabeth — everyone calls her Liz — begs God to tell her what to do, and all you hear are sobs, rain, and the roll of thunder.

The film’s New York stretches feature Liz and her diffident soon-to-be ex-husband (Billy Crudup) and Liz’s rebound relationship with an actor (James Franco). Neither man ever seems right for Liz or for Roberts, whose radiance is something few actors can completely absorb without vanishing. Viola Davis, as Liz’s literary agent, handles that fine, but she’s stuck, sadly, with another best-friend part.

By far, the section set in Italy is the movie’s best — and not simply because of the food or the joy Roberts shows in eating it. Murphy surrounds Liz with Italians who tutor her in both the language of words and the body. This is the movie in which Roberts finally learns to use her hands. Luca Argentero, Tuva Novotny, Andrea Di Stefano, and the marvelously rotund Giuseppe Gandini play her circle of friends. And it’s fun watching Roberts out of her element acclimating to strangers as expressive as she is.

The trips to the Indian ashram and Balinese village that follow have their moments — many of them from the casting department. At the ashram, Richard Jenkins shows up as a Texan who nicknames Liz “Groceries’’ for her big appetite and Rushita Singh as a teenager with broken glasses on the verge of an arranged marriage. Bali produces first the wonderful Hadi Subiyanto as her toothless psychic friend, then Javier Bardem as a toothsome Brazilian suitor.

These passages prove that it’s possible to film a luminous white American abroad amid various brown people without turning sanctimonious or downright ugly. These are gentle scenes, inflected with the comedy and poignancy of human connection as well as news of something called quest physics. But it all makes the movie feel somewhat eternal, too. Of course, it’s hard to protest too much. Roberts doesn’t work often enough to overstay her welcome. At the moment, the only person eating more delectably in Italy is Tilda Swinton in “I Am Love.’’

I just wished Murphy had better fleshed out the contours of Liz’s thinking toward the end. Only in the movies does her final choice make emotional sense. But isn’t that where we are: the movies? And isn’t this where we’d like to see Roberts more? At some point the rotund Roman — Luca Spaghetti, no less — tells Liz that the difference between Italians and Americans is that Italians like pleasure and Americans like entertainment. Too true. But watching Roberts squeeze herself into a pair of jeans or kick her heels in the air, this American has rarely felt more Italian.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/wesley_morris.

EAT PRAY LOVE

Directed by: Ryan Murphy

Written by: Murphy and Jennifer Salt, adapted from the memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert

Starring: Julia Roberts, Billy Crudup, James Franco, Richard Jenkins, Javier Bardem,

and Viola Davis

At: Boston Common,

Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 142 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (some brief strong language, sexual references, male rear nudity, and an almost pornographic eating of pizza, pasta, and turkey)

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