Friday, November 26, 2010

eat pray love (the film): a review

I try to avoid reviewing books and films. In writing, at least. I do like to share what I love about them, what inspired me when I read or  watched them, but I don't like to criticise - because I know how much thought and effort is embedded within them. I try to restrict my criticism to politicians (with the exception of Obama, of course) and (the abomination)  Sex and the City II. So this review of Eat Pray Love, the film, will be a kind one, but one which will steadfastly defend the book I love so much.

I'm sure you probably know how much I love Eat Pray Love. It's not that I could relate to the book in its entirety. Elizabeth Gilbert and I are different in a lot of ways. She is of another generation, a different upbringing, a different culture. I have never been married, nor divorced. I am nearly two decades younger than she. We have differing religious beliefs. Nevertheless, I adore her. I don't think that we need to share life experiences or characteristics in order to be able to empathise with somebody's pain and joy. And because she is such a beautiful writer that you cannot help but fall in love with her... as long as you read her book with an open heart. Which I suspect a lot of jaded women have NOT been doing. (See, I am biased. Sorry!)

Anyhow, I watched the film a few weeks ago. I enjoyed it a lot. I cried in parts (three times, to be exact... the Thanksgiving dinner, Richard's confession and José's son leaving him). I laughed. I thought that Julia Roberts was a good fit for the role of Liz. I fell in love with the gorgeous Javier Bardem and James Franco. Ketut and Wayan were as charming as I imagined. The scenery was beautiful. 

The only thing about the movie that didn't quite sit right was the premise. Which, as you can imagine, is a pretty big deal. It seems to have ruined the film for people who have not yet read the book and now, are very unlikely to ever do so. David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz - two movie reviewers I admire very much - are just two examples of disillusioned audience members. You can read their review here. (Please do. It's pretty funny.) Here is an excerpt: 

MARGARET: It is interminable and twee and unbelievably self-indulgent and the trouble is that much as you want to enjoy this character I just found I couldn't. I found it - I couldn't understand why she abruptly breaks up her marriage to begin with.

DAVID: No. That put me off right from the start because the husband seemed so...

MARGARET: ... and she caused a lot of hurt in the process and, oh, she's going off to discover herself and it sort of immediately sets up a tremendously selfish motive.

DAVID: It's a me, me, me film.

MARGARET: And I should sympathise with this woman more but - I tried to read the book and I actually couldn't.

DAVID: Ah, okay.

MARGARET: So I'm a bit with you on this.

DAVID: So I don't feel so bad not having read the book?

MARGARET: No. No, don't feel guilty. Not that you ever would.

DAVID: Not that I would, no.

MARGARET: Look, I'm giving this two and a half stars.

DAVID: Oh, really? Okay, well, I'm giving it one and a half.

Now, I would never dispute their right to have an opinion. And it is a very esteemed opinion at that. But here exists a clash - a clash of pre-ordained judgments of the film and the film failing to address those inevitable preconceptions in its storyline. What I mean to say is that Eat Pray Love was always going a film that would be heavily criticised. It is, after all, now considered a cliché for women "finding themselves", and Liz's journey is often made light of, sometimes in a nasty way. This column by Karen Brooks, for example, is particularly scathing.

It is clear to me that David and Margaret saw the film with the impression that it would be a bit of a self-indulgent joke. And that impression has been fulfilled, to the tee. The film DOES portray Liz as selfish and delusional. Her husband seems eccentric and perhaps a little selfish himself... but, of course, that is not reason enough to leave somebody and cause them so much hurt and pain. So of course David and Margaret think that Liz is utterly self-centred, and therefore deemed the rest of the film completely frivolous and worthless. Because the insensitivity and superficiality with which the divorce was dealt cheapened the journey itself.

The thing is, the divorce was glossed over in the book as well. But not because Liz made her decision to leave her husband lightly. It was out of respect to him; she did not want to delve into their marriage breakdown at all. She just made clear that she had loved him dearly, but she was desperately unhappy. It was not only his fault, nor was it hers. Well, in actual fact, they were both to blame. And the gulf between them simply could not be bridged. It was over.

Despite that, Liz details the pain of the divorce in excruciating detail. The divorce spanned over two years. He refused to acquiese, no matter how much she bequeathed him. (This is her ex-husband, by the way. Word has it that he also took off after the divorce was finalised, traveling through the Middle East providing aid to the needy. No need to judge whose journey was more noble... but he seems to be a good person.) Liz spiraled into a deep depression which, despite her best efforts, could only be curbed by medication. The film-makers clearly decided not to cover that ground. I understand their decision, I suppose. They wanted to make a feel-good, inspirational film, and launch into the eating, praying and loving as soon as possible - which is so much more fun than heartache and depression. 

By avoiding the melodrama of the book, however, the film presented as Liz's story as shallow. What on earth did they hope to achieve by the ridiculous divorce settlement scene, for example? Was it supposed to be humorous? Because all it did was make divorce seem like some sort of selfish bourgeoisie game. Which it is not. It is difficult, hurtful and incredibly sad. So, with all that in mind, it is natural that people who did not read, understand or relate to the book find the movie excruciating.

Please know that I am totally aware of the fact that screenwriters need to condense an entire book into a relatively short film, and that many nuances will be left by the wayside. Of course that is inevitable. But since that is the case, it should have been that the screenwriters had the foresight to realise that they would never be able to capture the complexity of a marriage within a few short minutes. And so they should have, quite rightfully, glossed over it. But with sensitivity. With the message that: "This was painful. This was hard. Whether or not it was the right thing to do, we will never know, but Liz was desperately unhappy and, after trying and trying to make it work, she did the best thing she could do for herself, and for her husband."

Okay. So I know that I am no professional screenwriter. In fact, I know absolutely nothing about it. Except that I watch films. And I like Elizabeth Gilbert. I don't like it when people criticise and don't offer a viable solution. So, for those EPL afficionados out there (for I know many of you exist, even if you won't admit it), here is my ideal exposition.... I would start with the famous bathroom scene. Where Liz is desperately asking God what on earth to do, because she doesn't want to be married anymore. That scene would reveal the gravity of her pain. With no need for explanations or justifications. Then go to Bali. Meet Ketut. Then tell her husband she is leaving him. I wouldn't have made him a character, as such. More of a shadowy being to represent Liz's intense unhappiness and dissatisfaction with her life. (Somewhat like the opening scenes of Antonioni's L'Eclisse... for film buffs.)

That's it. I think those three scenes would be enough. Then they could have launched into all the fun yummy stuff, like her love affair with bedroom-eyed David, traipsing through the streets of Rome, finding clarity in India, bicycling through the Balinese jungle and making love to Penelope Cruz's husband. Because that is all perfectly lovely and heart-lifting. But without the underlying backstory - without the journey from one state of being to another, which was the whole rationale behind the trip in the first place - it just has no meaning. The audience cannot be truly happy for their protagonist, because there is nothing to validate the transformation she undertakes. All we see is an incredibly beautiful woman sweeping from one privileged life to the next, from one loving man into the arms of another... and another. Why on earth should we care?

So that is my first review. What did you think of the movie? Have you read the book? I would love to hear your opinions!


Anonymous said...

I loved the book so much that I think I'll love the movie regardless...I still haven't seen it, so perhaps I'll read EPL again to refresh the story before I watch the movie. Love the review Laura!

Anonymous said...

I loved the book so much that I think I'll love the movie regardless...I still haven't seen it, so perhaps I'll read EPL again to refresh the story before I watch the movie. Love the review Laura!

tonile.helena said...

I really enjoyed the book. I think she is a fabulous writer, but there was just so much content in the book that a movie would never do it justice. I find that with lengthy or detailed books, movies aren't great unless they are 3 hour epics (classic example is The Other Boleyn Girl). I tried to get into the film, and it didn't work out. I think I'm happy to leave it at that and not ruin my perception of the book. I completely agree with how the divorce was glossed over though, and can see how people view it as a "me me me" film.

Anonymous said...

Laura, thank you for confirming my fears and ensuring that I don't ruin my love of the book by going to see the film! When I heard they were making a film, I shuddered - the beauty of the book is, as you say, the transformation which takes place in Liz's state of mind, from complete heart-wrenching despair to a fragile peace. I didn't think they could do her words justice in a film, and it sounds like I was right. Though I have to say, if they'd opened the film with your suggestions, I think it might have just worked. Maybe you have a talent you didn't know about! ;) Great review.

Laura Valerie said...

Thank you for your comments lovelies - you are all completely right, the film would never do the book justice! I just wish that the filmmakers had taken a more artistic, thoughtful approach, and let the film stand on its own two feet, rather than just relying upon the success of the book to make a "blockbuster" film that would make a lot of money... ensuring that the film would not be the classic that it deserved to be! Of course it is just an illustration of the Hollywood film industry as a whole - not art but a business. Don't get me wrong, I did enjoy watching it but it was a fairy-flossy kind of fun without much depth or subtlety. xx

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