by John S.
Movie Postmortem is a series that reviews certain films which showed promise but misfired, critically and/or commercially, upon release. Join us in our attempt to find out exactly what the hell happened.
THE CASUALTY: Eat Pray Love
THE CASE HISTORY: February 2006. Successful New York travel writer Elizabeth “Liz” Gilbert publishes a memoir about the back-to-back implosions of her marriage and a rebound romance, and her subsequent attempt to heal by spending a year traveling around the world. Titled Eat Pray Love: One Woman’s Search For Everything Through Italy, India, and Indonesia, the book is met with near-universal acclaim. Among its innumerable fans are two very influential ones: Oprah Winfrey and Julia Roberts.
Not everyone is wild about the book, though. Some quarters criticize it, essentially calling the book a self-involved and privileged affair, adding that not everyone has the means to heal themselves by checking out for a year and trotting the globe. Nevertheless, Winfrey’s promotion of Eat Pray Love further accelerates its popularity. Columbia Pictures eventually secures the film rights and the actress chosen to play Gilbert on the silver screen is none other than Roberts herself. Javier Bardem, Viola Davis, Richard Jenkins, James Franco, and Billy Crudup join the cast in key supporting roles. Glee creator Ryan Murphy is chosen to helm the production. Given the huge success of the book and Roberts in the lead, anticipation for the film adaptation is sky-high.
August 2010. Eat Pray Love The Movie is released in North America and scores $23 million in its first three days, eventually topping domestically at $80 million. Given the book’s immense popularity and Roberts’ star power, this is viewed by many as somewhat tepid. Consider that My Best Friend’s Wedding, Notting Hill, and Runaway Bride – all rom-com Roberts vehicles from the late-90’s – opened in the same range. All three eventually finished well past $100 million. Before adjusted for inflation.
The reviews aren’t exactly gushing either. While technically well-made and solidly-acted, the film is heavily faulted for the rarefied mentality that comes across much stronger than in the book. Even though the movie eventually takes in just over $200 million globally, the overall impression is hard to dispute: Eat Pray Love The Movie does not get the same acclaim Eat Pray Love The Book did.
So what the hell happened?
THE AUTOPSY DETAILS: To understand why Eat Pray Love underperformed it is necessary to compare the movie with the book, because they are two distinct experiences. While they ostensibly tell the same surface story, each version’s narrator registers differently and therefore so does the story she tells. Since that “character” is our guide to the movie’s narrative landscape, how we connect (or not) with her is crucial. We will refer to them as Book Liz and Movie Liz.
In the book, Book Liz comes across as warm, funny, earthy, and relatable. I admit I was very wary about reading it but liked it a lot once I did. The “entitled” tone that some cited is a bit exaggerated by naysayers and is minimized by Book Liz’s humanity and willingness to admit her imperfections. Her frankness and self-deprecating humor wins a lot of good will and I can understand why so many people championed the book. Reading about Book Liz managing to regain and maintain perspective is what made the memoir a worthwhile read.
Some have also criticized Gilbert for essentially financing her year-long “journey of the soul” from an advance made by her publisher based on a pitch (something Book Liz frankly admits). They think this “pre-meditation” makes her experiences contrived. I don’t necessarily agree nor do I fault her for it. She had essentially lost a lot following her divorce and her decision was likely a combination of the creative and pragmatic. I doubt many people would choose differently if they were in her shoes. Furthermore, it’s hard to hold this against Book Liz because of how humble she comes across.
Movie Liz, however, is a different story. While Julia Roberts has turned in immensely likable performances in previous films (particularly Pretty Woman, which is probably the best example of a star being born right in front of your eyes), she registers a different presence here – one that is much cooler and more distantly-poised. By contrast, Book Liz comes across much more like Roberts’ character in Pretty Woman: imperfect, approachable, and disarming. Movie Liz, on the other hand, seems to be a different person – someone more self-involved and entitled.
There is a key scene in the movie’s first act that is pivotal. It’s supposed to win us over to Movie Liz’s decision to travel the world. She discusses her plan with her best friend Amanda (Viola Davis), who understandably criticizes her decision. Movie Liz’s reaction to this is shrill and petulant and doesn’t exactly make us side with her. The India section follows the same tone, with Movie Liz coming across in a whiny, unflattering light. In the book, these passages were much more low-key and less melodramatic. Keeping them the same way in the movie might have helped make Movie Liz more likable.
To be fair to Movie Liz, there are some moments – particularly in the Rome chapter – where she becomes a bit more sympathetic. A great sequence citing the abused, forgotten underground tunnels of Rome as a metaphor for the human spirit’s resilience is well-shot by Murphy and nicely acted by Roberts. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough of these striking passages once the narrative leaves Italy. The miscasting of Javier Bardem (who seems more annoying than alluring and doesn’t gel with Roberts) as Movie Liz’s Indonesia fling-turned-Brazilian Prince Charming ends the story on a flat note. Maybe recasting the roles with, say, Sandra Bullock and Demian Bichir would’ve helped.
LIKELY CAUSE OF DEATH: Ultimately, most of the fans of the book probably didn’t get the same experience from the movie, whether because of the difference in tones or another reason. Meanwhile, non-fans were likely not going to support the movie, anyway. Consequently, once initial interest and curiosity about the film version of Eat Pray Love was answered there likely wasn’t much repeat business to be had – leading to a relatively lukewarm reception.
NEXT CASUALTY: Passengers – “There is a reason they woke up.”
Starring two of the most popular stars of the moment and boasting an irresistible pitch (Titanic in outer space!) this flick should have knocked it out of the park. Instead it just did… okay. In honor of the release of Alien: Covenant, let’s look at another space saga (one without monsters) and find out why its rockets failed to catch fire.
John S. is a Scarecrow volunteer who loves James Bond, Jason Bourne, Italian Gialli, Argento, Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Sandra Bullock in The Proposal, Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, Theo James in anything, Steve Zahn in everything, Halloween (movie & holiday), South Park (cartoon & neighborhood), and Scarecrow Video – not necessarily in that order.