Monday, August 16, 2010
Desperately Seeking Something: Eat Pray Love and Cairo Time
This has been a good summer for something we haven’t seen much in the movies: the female midlife crisis. (Could this be the next wave of Baby Boomer self-analysis?) Think Nicole Holofcener’s guiltily bourgeois shop owner in Please Give, the reluctantly maturing gals of Sex and the City 2, the conflicted sisters in Let It Rain and Life During Wartime, Julianne Moore’s restless spouse in The Kids are All Right, and Annette Bening’s grief-frozen woman in Mother and Child. And now come the women of Eat Pray Love and Cairo Time, two American writers on the near side of middle age who go to exotic settings and find themselves.
Eat Pray Love’s Liz Gilbert looks for her bliss with single-minded intensity after leaving her husband. Granting herself a year-long sabbatical, she goes to Italy, where she reconnects with her love of food; India, where she learns to meditate and pray at the ashram of a popular guru; and Indonesia, where she apprentices herself to another guru and finds love – but only after her sensible Balian guru (a magnetic Hadi Subiyanto) advises her to go for it, since losing your footing in love now and then is part of finding your balance in life. Thank goodness he told her, since Liz seems incapable of doing anything without the fortune-cookie blessing of some spiritual leader or other.
Okay, I’m judging her now, and I promised myself I’d judge the movie on its own merits. That’s hard to do, since the real Liz Gilbert’s glib, self-satisfied aphorisms litter the overwritten voiceover. (The film, in case you don’t already know, is based on Gilbert’s bestselling memoir of the same name.) Nearly all the other people Liz spends time with speak in maxims too, from the black best friend and editor, the husband, and the post-separation boyfriend she leaves in New York to the merry guru and earth-mother medicine woman she finds in Bali. The script does have the grace to joke about its avalanche of adages (“Do you always speak in bumper stickers?” Liz asks a Texan she befriends at the ashram), but acknowledging the problem is not the same as solving it.
But my real problem with Eat Pray Love is its false advertising. It claims to be the tale of an arduous journey of growth and self-discovery, but it plays like a feel-good fantasy, less crass but not much more soul-searching than the Sex and the City crew’s trip to Abu Dhabi. It’s hard, of course, to dramatize spiritual growth, but after all Liz’s talk about how she’s spent too much of her life in relationships with men and needs to be on her own, it feels like more than just a failure of imagination to spend so little time exploring her internal landscape and so much on her relationships with the gorgeous and devoted men who keep throwing themselves at her feet.
Which brings us to my other big problem with this movie. Julia Roberts’ appetite for life is too large, her great gash of a mouth too eager to laugh, to make her plausible as a woman so depressed she feels empty inside. Slurping down forkfuls of spaghetti in a sun-drenched plaza in Rome? Attracting men like flies to flypaper wherever she goes? Making new friends with a glance with from those limpid brown eyes? You bet. But I’ve seen that movie before.
Cairo Time’s Juliette (Patricia Clarkson) starts out too repressed to even dream big: she just wants to join her husband on vacation in Cairo. But when his courtly ex-colleague Tareq (Alexander Siddig) squires her around town while her husband is detained on business, Juliette wakens to the possibility of doing some of the exploring she hasn’t allowed herself since she was a girl.
Juliette and Tareq are both old-fashioned: an old-school lady and gentleman. But while Siddig plays his role just right, courtly without being cloying, his warmth and sense of humor never far beneath the surface, Clarkson makes Juliette’s strenuous self-control too stagey. She floats through the film as if she were on Valium, her voice almost a whisper. Her body language is exaggerated too, starting out almost arthritically stiff and becoming downright catlike as her sexuality emerges. The phone conversations we see her side of when her husband checks in feel like an acting exercise, and the hungry looks she directs at Tareq in public are too long and unguarded. It’s too much for this quiet story, the cinematic equivalent of shouting in a library.
The gorgeous vistas, gorgeous men, and glimpses of other ways of life in Eat Pray Love and Cairo Time make for a pleasant enough hour or two of vicarious adventure, if that's what you're in the mood for. But both movies stay too much on the surface to make us feel the cataclysmic internal changes they portray.