Eat Pray Love

Among Julia Roberts’ many talents is the ability to be likable even when she’s playing a character who isn’t. She’ll star in something dreadful like “Runaway Bride” or “Mona Lisa Smile,” and despite what a shrill stereotype the character is, Roberts herself will be infectiously pleasant.

This skill is taxed to its limits in “Eat Pray Love,” in which Roberts plays a privileged, self-absorbed narcissist who takes a year-long vacation to “find herself.” (You’re always in the last place you look, amirite?) This lady, Elizabeth Gilbert (also the name of the author from whose memoir the film was adapted), isn’t happy married, isn’t happy single, isn’t happy ever. She figures she needs to spend some time with no one but herself. Speaking as one who has spent 140 minutes with her, I would advise against that.

At the outset, she’s been married for several years to Stephen (Billy Crudup), a slightly goofy fellow who adores her. One night she reveals that she is not happy and wants a divorce. Stephen is stunned to hear this. Sharing his surprise: the audience. We knew Stephen was a little flighty with regard to choosing a career path, but that’s literally the only indication we’d been given that anything was awry. Whatever dissatisfaction had accumulated in Liz must have done so before we arrived. (Perhaps there’s a prequel? “Cook Kneel Like”?)

Stephen is hurt that Liz would suddenly call it quits without ever telling him that she was unhappy. He’s right, of course; amazingly, the film expects us to be on Liz’s side anyway. Stephen is painted as a doofus, a bit of a basket case who loses his cool in the divorce proceedings. Liz, on the other hand, prays very earnestly, asking God for direction, apologizing for never having prayed before. “But I do hope I have always expressed ample gratitude for all the blessings that you’ve given me in my life,” she says, in tears, oblivious to the fact that so far in the story her defining characteristic has been ingratitude.

This should be irony. The director, Ryan Murphy (“Running with Scissors,” TV’s “Glee”), who adapted the screenplay with Jennifer Salt, should be conveying that Liz is critically lacking in self-awareness. She thinks she is grateful when in fact she is not. But everything about the scene — the soft lighting, the gentle tone, the close-up on Roberts’ pain-stricken face — suggests that we’re meant to sympathize with her. Either we’re not supposed to have noticed that she’s a spoiled ingrate, or we’re not supposed to mind.

She is similarly unhappy with her rebound boyfriend, a bohemian actor named David (James Franco). She’s unable to articulate why she’s dissatisfied, just that she is. She finally concludes the only possible solution is to spend a year in a series of foreign countries, working out her vaguely defined issues. As she exits David’s apartment building for the last time, David says he wishes she would work out her issues here, with him. She says, “You never asked me to stay.” It’s supposed to be an “Oh, snap!” moment: In all Liz’s talk of leaving, David apparently never specifically asked her not to. David is supposed to spell everything out, while Liz is permitted to mope uncommunicatively. For about the tenth time in 30 minutes, the movie wants me to be on Liz’s side and I’m not.

This is the pattern for the rest of the movie.

Liz goes to Italy, then India, then Indonesia, in each locale learning personal lessons relating to one of the three title verbs. In Rome, she befriends a nice Swedish girl (Tuva Novotny) and a handsome young Italian tutor (Luca Argentero), learning the language while eating a lot of pasta. Her epiphany is to not care so much about whether she gains a few pounds, but to simply enjoy the food. She will embrace her muffin top! There’s a comical scene in which she tries to put on jeans that don’t fit because she’s “too fat,” i.e., she is now a size 4. She has really let herself go!!

In India, she meditates at an ashram, where a no-nonsense Texan (Richard Jenkins) gives her down-to-earth advice. And in Indonesia (the lush island of Bali, specifically), she faces the question of whether she can love again. (Javier Bardem is involved.) The answer she arrives at is disappointingly conventional. For a movie about a woman trotting the globe to find herself, its “you can’t last long without a man” message is a little odd.

“But Eric D. Snider!” you say, addressing me by my full name, out of respect. “You are not a woman! How could you possibly relate to Liz and her feelings?” I cop to the charge of not being a woman, and it’s true that some of Liz’s angst might be gender-specific. But the movie is also structurally unsound. The protagonist doesn’t have a clear-cut goal or obstacle to overcome. The vagueness of her problems makes it hard to know what the lessons are, or at what point she has learned them, or when the seemingly interminable film will, in fact, terminate. (Did I mention it’s 140 minutes long?) There isn’t a “story,” per se, with rising action and climaxes and all that; Liz just sort of goes around doin’ stuff for a while, until it’s time to go someplace else and do different stuff. We know she’s learned something only because the movie finally ends. This has the whiff of a film that believes it is 10 times more powerful and meaningful than it actually is.

D+ (2 hrs., 20 min.; PG-13, a little mild profanity, one F-word, a guy's naked butt.)