Starring: Julia Roberts, Javier Bardem, James Franco
Directed by: Ryan Murphy (“Running with Scissors”)
Written by: Ryan Murphy (“Running with Scissors”) and Jennifer Salt (debut)
When it comes to travelogue-type romances where a woman goes on a journey of self-discovery to exotic places around the world only to be swept off her feet when she least expects it, there’s not much a narrative can do with that setup that hasn’t been done before.
It’s not, however the cliché structure that is the problem with Julia Roberts’ new film “Eat Pray Love,” based on the memoir by writer and world traveler Elizabeth Gilbert. It’s actually quite interesting to watch Elizabeth (Roberts) admit she is unhappy and bail out on life to search for greener pastures. But “EPL” only scratches the surface of a story that deserves more than just spaghetti lunches, beautiful beaches, and Roberts’ ear-to-ear smile.

In “EPL,” director/co-writer Ryan Murphy (“Running with Scissors”) delivers plenty of eating, praying, and loving, but bows out before really doing any affecting. All the tools are there at his disposal, starting with Roberts herself. As Elizabeth, a woman who decides to take a year off to travel to Italy, India, and Indonesia for a little “me” time, the film is cast well. There is a vulnerability to Roberts that is as intriguing as when she plays her more outgoing characters.

Where “EPL” takes shortcuts in its storyline is when Roberts bring a plus one. Besides a charming relationship she has with a medicine man on her trip to Bali, no one else she shares screen time with is present long enough to define the importance of them in her life. In one scene, Elizabeth is walking the streets of Italy as a loner. Two scenes later, she’s having dinner with close friends who have wedge their way into the plot without a sense of how they got there in the first place.

Even with the men in her life – Billy Crudup plays the jilted husband; James Franco plays the lover post-marriage; Javier Bardem plays the man who reawakens her soul – there no time for real connection. Even at 135 minutes, “EPL” skimps on the details. In doing so, we can never really engage in Elizabeth’s suffering or the healing process it takes her to find true enlightenment (an idea that doesn’t translate well on screen no matter how gentle Murphy makes it).

By the end of her trip, Elizabeth is saved. It would have been a lot more moving if we were allowed to see at least some of the damage she began with.

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