The first time I saw the memoir’s title, I couldn’t escape the association: the concept of “pray” following “eat” was made famous by the late quip-master, Rodney Dangerfield. The line surfaced in his act many times, but since we’re talking movies, I’ll cite his rendering in Stone’s Natural Born Killers, in which the comedian briefly shows up as perverted father to Juliette Lewis’ killer-on-the-run. In a parody sitcom scene, Rodney yells to his wife, “This fucking food, you have to pray after you eat it!” The line works off our culture’s association to prayer before feasting, which I bet was also author Elizabeth Gilbert’s aim to undercut. Her choice to unhinge the title from the usual punctuation provides a spiritual, likely new-age sensibility. Were each noun followed by a comma, we’d have a chain sequence, casual and very western-minded. (The requisite “and” would suggest finality, while the end to Gilbert’s story suggests a beginning, a new way of life.) Gilbert presents three actions that, in her tale, occur in that order, though occasionally we need to indulge upon all.
To bring Gilbert’s tale to the screen would require humility, to honor the content of spiritual rebirth, and faithfulness, considering the popular source memoir’s unique, triple-arched narrative: the author/hero visits three locales – Italy, India, and Indonesia – to correspond to her three eponymous actions. The film opens as a form of exodus, in which Liz (Julia Roberts) ends her marriage to underachieving Stephen (Billy Crudup). The break offers up brief divorce conferences – as usual, Hollywood avoids marriage counseling and divorce mediation for tete-a-tete between attorneys. Meanwhile, Liz flees to young actor David (James Franco), who’s performing in the stage-adaptation of one of her stories. Her decision to find herself through journey a la Under the Tuscan Sun forces her to leave David and New York behind. She gets some measured guidance from friend Delia (Viola Davis), a new mother stressing that Liz needs a personal discovery.
Casting Julia Roberts as Liz appears to violate the film’s need for humility. The actor’s cocky real-life persona bleeds too easily into her later roles, though her earlier work shows energy of diving into her characters. Notwithstanding her age – the book’s Liz, in her thirties, has more of a youthful vulnerability – Roberts subdues herself into the role with restrained lines and action. Her Liz, aside from her occasional resistance, opens herself to new experience – how to enjoy in Italy, how to unlock her mind in India, and how to rediscover romance in Indonesia. A rude Texan in India (a very natural Richard Jennings) proves trying in his forced mentoring to her, but eventually is a compatriot in spirit. Javier Bardem awaits her at the last stop, and as Woody’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona showed us, the actor personifies magnetism in a romantic locale. The title doesn’t disguise the narrative’s direction, though it hints to the film’s style and commitment. Rodney may have cracked about “pray(ing) after you eat,” but this film reflects the need to surfeit before finding balance.