Magazine | September 20, 2010, Issue

Film: The Mirror’s Shallow God

Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love (Sony Pictures)
A review of Eat Pray Love

Of the many appropriately vicious reviews that greeted Sex and the City 2 this summer, my favorite belonged to Matt Zoller Seitz, writing for the Independent Film Channel. The Sex sequel, his essay concluded, is “an accidental candid snapshot of the sick, dying heart of America, a film so pleased with its vacuous, trashy, art-free extravagance that its poster should be taped to the dingy walls of terrorist sleeper agents worldwide. . . . Ladies and gentlemen, this is why they hate us.”

I hate to even quibble with such a perfect takedown. But after sitting through Eat Pray Love, the adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s mega-selling memoir about finding fulfillment in Rome, India, and Bali, I’m convinced that Seitz got it slightly wrong. For all its overstuffed awfulness, Sex and the City 2 was too vacuous, too gross, too upfront in its sleaziness and materialism to really convey what’s wrong with 21st-century American culture. It lacked the unique twist that Americans give to decadence, the pretentious spin that can make our coarseness that much more offensive and unbearable. For all its sins, at least Sex and the City 2 knew that it was trashy. It didn’t claim to be religious.

Eat Pray Love, on the other hand, is one of the most self-consciously spiritual movies you’ll see this year, and also one of the most appalling. From the moment Gilbert (incarnated on screen by Julia Roberts) falls on her knees in her New York apartment and prays for deliverance from an unhappy marriage, through her sojourns in Indian ashrams and her conversations with a Balinese medicine man, it’s clear that this is a rare Hollywood production where the theological message is as important as the plotting. (To the extent, that is, that the film can be said to have a plot at all.) You may think you’re in for a chick flick–cum–travelogue, but Eat Pray Love has something more profound in mind: Beneath the glossy surface, there’s the outline of a contemporary Pilgrim’s Progress, in which a scattered, baffled modern woman finds happiness by figuring out what God desires from her, and acting accordingly.

So what does the Almighty ask of our heroine? Well, for starters, He wants Gilbert to break up with her husband of eight years (Billy Crudup), whose chief sins seem to be a slightly haphazard career trajectory and a disinterest in accompanying his wife on some of her travel-journalist junkets. Then God wants her to shack up, temporarily, with a gorgeous younger man played by James Franco, before dropping him when their messy relationship gets in the way of her self-actualization. Then God wants her to embark on a year-long globetrotting adventure — first in Italy, where she learns to eat pasta and enjoy herself; then, India, where she learns to meditate and forgive herself; and then, finally, Indonesia, where she learns that it’s okay to fall for a handsome Brazilian divorcé played by the smoldering Javier Bardem.

#page#If everything “God” wants sounds suspiciously like what a willful, capricious, self-indulgent Western woman with too much time and money on her hands might want . . . well, then you’ve unlocked the theological message of this movie. Late in her ashram phase, Gilbert distills it to bumper-sticker length: “God dwells within me, as me.” And what that God wants for her, inevitably, is the fulfillment of that inner self, the renunciation of its hang-ups and self-doubts, and the gratification of its desires.

This theology helps explain why, out of the four locales featured in Eat Pray Love, Gilbert really reaches out for spiritual insight only in New York, India, and Bali. During her sojourn in Rome, where a rather well-known world religion makes its headquarters, she just eats and eats and eats. After all, why even dabble in a spiritual tradition that you know would disapprove of your life choices, or frown on your God-is-me epiphanies? Better to keep tucking away the pasta, and then hustle on eastward looking for gurus less judgmental than the pope.

Not that Eastern religions don’t make demands as stringent as anything in Christianity. But it’s much easier to gloss over the hard stuff when you’re a religious tourist, dipping your toes into somebody else’s tradition (and probably paying for the privilege). Yes, as part of the ashram’s discipline, we’re briefly treated to the unlikely sight of Julia Roberts scrubbing floors — but the authorities quickly decide that her real talent lies in greeting new arrivals and letting that kilowatt-smile shine. Thousands of years of Hindu thought and practice, it turns out, have been leading up to the affirmation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s sparkling personality — just as all the ancient wisdom of Balinese folk religion apparently exists to help her shack up with Javier Bardem.

If I were Indian or Indonesian or even Italian, I would watch this self-indulgent spectacle with a mounting hatred for everything American. As an English-speaking Catholic, I’ll reach for G. K. Chesterton instead. “Of all horrible religions,” he wrote, anticipating Eat Pray Love by a hundred years, “the most horrible is the worship of the god within. . . . That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones. Let Jones worship the sun or moon, anything rather than the Inner Light; let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, if he can find any in his street, but not the god within.”

It’s probably too late to interest Elizabeth Gilbert in crocodile-worship, alas. But it would have made for a more interesting, less infuriating movie.

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