Many critics didn't like Eat Pray Love. Largely, it seems, because Elizabeth Gilbert went on the year-long trip that is the subject of the book and the movie. She was able to go because she had enough money to pay for it. That annoys a lot of people. It strikes them as unrealistic. Who has that kind of money? Why should we care what happens to this rich woman with her petty fantasy about self-realization? The words "navel gazing" come up a lot in reviews. Regular people don't have time to "self-realize." They have bills to pay. They can't just fly off to Italy, and then India, and then Indonesia.
Claudia Puig of USA Today writes, "The whole journey feels like a rich girl gone slumming."
"Even chicks won't dig this new-age flick based on a best-selling memoir," begins Lou Lumenick of the New York Post, suggesting that usually "chicks" can be counted on to have bad taste, and the true awfulness of the movie is reflected in the fact that even those with terrible taste won't like it.
I am a "chick." I read the book. I admit, I got a little bitter myself. I'd just been through a breakup at the time, and I was really with Liz at the beginning, when she's crying in the bathroom a lot. She's a deft writer. She made me laugh more than I expected to. I was on board for her adventures in Italy. I love pasta. Also, she actually learned Italian. That's impressive, and requires a lot of determination and hard work. Ashrams and endless silent meditation were less engaging. There's something uncreative about seeking out some comfortably Americanized version of a sliver of an Eastern religion in order to discover oneself. Not that yoga and meditation and silent retreats aren't fulfilling and meaningful for many white people from Manhattan and San Francisco. And not that if I ruled the world I would ever prevent them from finding meaning in whatever nonviolent ways most appeal to them. But the trendiness of the pursuit has always annoyed me. Liz goes to India as though she expects to find a "pure" version of Eastern enlightenment there. And she stays in an Ashram full of people from the United States who are thinking exactly the same thing. I skipped some pages.
When she went to Bali, I wanted to go to Bali, too. It sounded gorgeous, and complicated, and fascinating. And then she met her perfect man, and I put the book down. It was all too neat. She's sad for a couple months. She finds herself. And as soon as she finds herself, she finds a guy. Who completes everything. It helps that he's also ruggedly handsome and has an exotic accent, and knows his way around all the shadowy, mysterious corners of the world.
Like I said, I'd just been through a breakup. I didn't want to hear that my story should end with finding a man. I wanted Liz's story to end with her proud and alone, fishing in the sparkling Balinese waters. Catching her own dinner. Or something.
But that was mostly bitterness. And I saw some of the same bitterness reflected in the reviews of the movie that I read. And more than that, I saw anger with Liz for making her own choices, and for designing her own adventure (as uncreative as aspects of it were), and for leaving a life (NYC, successful writer, loving husband) that so many people covet.
I don't think that it is Elizabeth Gilbert's responsibility to decide against taking trips that other people can't afford or wouldn't choose to devote funds to. Even if she was exceptionally wealthy, she shouldn't have to apologize for it, but it doesn't sound to me as though she was exceptionally wealthy at all when the events of the memoir unfolded. She made a decision to spend her money on a trip instead of, most likely, a Manhattan apartment that would have cost as much (if not more) and had a much less interesting view. A recent article in the New York Times talks about how much happier people tend to be when they allot funds to vacations rather than to something more permanent, say a couch or an apartment with a fancy bathroom. It seems like Gilbert had the right idea, according to this research. Her vacation was just a lot longer.
Gilbert did something brave. She left her familiar life for a year and lived alone in unfamiliar places. It isn't really very fair to cast her adventure as uninteresting, because it is inherently interesting. It's different.
It's unfair to imply a kind of emotional laziness that enables Liz to slip out of her marriage without a satisfactory explanation for her readers and now viewers. She takes on the project of acquiring a home for a divorced Balinese woman with no resources of her own. She agonizes over her decisions, and she acts with almost shocking sensitivity towards the people she encounters. The fact that this sensitivity is not directed at her ex-husband leaves some critics huffing with indignation, but to get offended over Liz leaving her husband is both to miss the point and to apply an unhealthy dose of moralism to one's evaluation of the story.
It's perfectly acceptable to critique Julia Roberts' performance, or Ryan Murphy's directing, or the James Franco's inability to stop smiling onscreen (he looks like he might snicker to himself at any moment and say, "I'm gonna make out with Julia Roberts! I'm the MAN!"). But to criticize Liz Gilbert for being brave enough to have an adventure, and for not loving all of the men who love her, is just petty.
I also thought it was funny that Kirk Honeycutt of The Hollywood Reporter found "all men [in the movie] unnaturally gorgeous" I definitely didn't have the same reaction. To be fair, he says a moment later, "Or at least interesting." Hmm. Still not sure I agree.
Follow Kate Fridkis on Twitter: www.twitter.com/eatthedamncake