Eat, Pray, Love My Middle-Aged Neighbor
A few months ago, when it was time for Christ and Pop Culture writers to lay claim to summer movies, I said something along the lines of, “I should probably see Eat Pray Love, but I already know I’ll despise it and have to write a scathing review.” Having now seen the movie, such a scathing review would be easy to write—and there are already plenty of them out there. Yet, even though I found very little to applaud in the movie, I want to try to understand why Eat Pray Love holds such appeal. It’s far too easy to dismiss it as emotional porn; moreover, many of the diatribes against Eat Pray Love and against woman-authored memoirs in general often seem to indulge in more than a hint of misogyny. I’m no fan—in less charitable moments, I’ve referred to Eat Pray Love as “Divorce, Neocolonialism, Spiritual Tourism”—but merely retreating into scorn for its fans doesn’t help me to love my neighbor.
What simultaneously disturbs and intrigues me about Eat Pray Love is how often I see people citing it as inspiration for some life-changing decision—from director Ryan Murphy’s claim that the book gave three of his friends the “courage” to leave their marriages to star Julia Roberts’s conversion to Hinduism while filming the movie. Of course, from a Christian perspective, these particular major life changes probably aren’t for the better. Still, when a book or a movie exercises such apparent cultural power, I want to know why. Writing off the movie as a “chick flick” won’t help anyone discover what deep needs—yes, particularly in women of a certain age—Elizabeth Gilbert’s life story seems to be addressing.
That’s one reason I went to see Eat Pray Love in the theater (though, believe me, I would rather have gone to Scott Pilgrim vs. The World). If you’ve never been to a movie largely attended by middle-aged women, you may not be familiar with the collective “mmm”s that signal appreciation for particular moments in a film, usually a line that seems particularly true or emotionally resonant. These verbal clues helped me pin down the particular appeal in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to do just watching the movie at home by my clueless self.
The aspect that most mystifies me about Eat Pray Love is why “Liz” (Elizabeth Gilbert’s character) so precipitously decides she wants a divorce. This isn’t even a mid-life crisis: Liz is in her early thirties. Her husband doesn’t seem bad at all—a bit flaky, with horrible taste in music, but these adjectives could equally well be applied to Liz, in my opinion. Yet, when he tells her he doesn’t want to tag along on her work-sponsored trip to Aruba (an honest expression of his preferences), she responds, “I don’t want to be married anymore.” Ooookay. That early moment in the film made it very difficult for me to feel any sympathy for Liz, though the movie clearly expects us to. It doesn’t get any better as she throws herself into a rebound relationship with a young actor/hippie (James Franco), while her husband is still hoping and believing that they can work things out. Yet, when Liz’s lawyer calls her to tell her that the husband has finally agreed to a divorce, the affirming murmur of the theater audience said, “Yes!”
To be fair, the reasons for Liz’s desire for a divorce may be better explained in the book—and if they aren’t, there could be a good motivation for that, too, since Elizabeth Gilbert’s husband is a real person, still out there living in the world. I wish I could have tracked down those “Yes!” voices in the theater and found out why they were so relieved. Was it because they had also gone through painful divorces and were seeing their own stories, their own relief, reflected in Liz’s life? Was it simply because the movie could now progress to more exotic locales?
Speaking of travel, that to me seems a far less incomprehensible aspect of the movie’s appeal. But what particularly struck me is how safe and structured Liz’s travels are. She determines beforehand (and, in real life, she secured a substantial book project advance) that she will visit Italy to eat, India to pray (via yoga and devotion to a guru), and Indonesia (specifically, Bali) to find balance between the pleasure and asceticism represented by the two previous locations. She already knows what she’s going to get out of each destination before she even arrives (“surprises,” such as her love affair with a Brazilian divorcé in Bali, are integrated seamlessly into her predetermined framework). Never mind that all these aspects of life could be appreciated equally well in New York.
The “friends” she encounters in each place are mirror images of the relationships she has back home, except that they don’t demand long-term commitment. There’s much talk of Liz learning to “love the whole world,” which mainly seems to mean thinking happy thoughts towards a young Indian woman forced into an arranged marriage and raising some money for a Balinese healer to buy her own home. These two incidents are supposed to indicate Liz’s spiritual progress to us—for which progress she can be rewarded with a hot Brazilian—in reality, they indicate how the movie mistakes warm, fuzzy feelings for love.
I suspect that the predetermined nature of Liz’s quest may be part of its appeal. Liz suffers from anxiety (in an early scene, a friend asks, “Do you need a Xanax?”, to which Liz immediately replies, “Always”—cue uproarious laughter from the theater audience), and the structure of her journey keeps it within safe, low-anxiety-inducing bounds. When Liz claims to want freedom from her old life, what she really wants is freedom from herself and her own mind. In this, Liz strikes me as representative of the contemporary epidemic of anxiety among American women, an epidemic for which the church has produced little response beyond “Be like Mary, not Martha” (a piece of advice to which a fair response is, “If I could, don’t you think I would have by now?”).
Yoga, for Liz and for many, is a socially acceptable form of escape from the tyranny of the anxious mind: in a lot of practitioners, it seems to produce a physiological calming response. Now, whole articles have been written on the topic of whether Christianity and some forms of yoga practice are compatible (some, I would argue, are not), but I do believe that the church needs to pay more attention to the desperate need for bodily practices as a part of spiritual experience. Calvin College philosopher James K.A. Smith is one of the most compelling voices articulating this need, finding examples of whole-body worship in both “low church” and “high church” settings. Even in anti-intellectual Christian circles, there’s a tendency for faith to become a purely cerebral matter (and I’m including emotions as part of that cerebral tendency—there’s certainly a lot of emotion in the church these days, but that offers little hope for those who feel the need to escape from their own overpowering emotions).
I have my doubts that the spiritual traditions Liz pursues in Eat Pray Love can offer any lasting freedom from herself—especially since the key spiritual revelation of the film is that “God is within you, as you” (why anyone would find that comforting is beyond me). However, Liz’s spiritual seeking does point out the ways in which church has failed anxiety-ridden people by talking at them rather than offering them spiritual disciplines that allow God to transform the whole person, body and soul. Yes, Eat Pray Love seems to wallow in self-indulgent pity—underneath it all, though, is a desire for something to redeem the self from itself.
I really don’t want to see this movie. I’ve gotten halfway through the book, and I’m enjoying it pretty much. There’s probably a lot being left out of the movie for editing’s sake. It’s not a life changing book for me, but it’s decent. I think the movie is being made out to be this reaffirming, life altering, crazy experience, and to some, it just might be. To me, it’s interesting to be reading about Elizabeth’s life experiences and the emotional impact her journey had on her as an individual, putting aside any judgments or morality issues that I might or might not have about her decisions. Making it into a movie would seem, to me, to make a mockery of the whole thing. I can’t say that for certain, having not seen the movie, but for once couldn’t Hollywood have avoided turning a rather interesting book into what, from most accounts, is a morally challenged attempt to cater to an audience. Wait. I’ve described almost every movie made, haven’t I? Oh, well. I wish they would have just left the book to stand on it’s own and not had to go and ruin a good thing. Money isn’t everything. Your opinions may vary, as always.
PS: Carissa, have you read the book, by chance? I’m sorry if you mentioned it in your review and I overlooked it. I appreciate your review. Well done.
TC: No, I haven’t read the book, though I’ve been trying to steel up the resolve to do so for the past three or four years. I’ve heard some people claim that the movie actually remedies some of the book’s shortcomings, though, while others say that the movie destroys whatever is most likable about the book.
A big thing you’re missing here in regards to Liz’s desire to travel, which she explained in depth in the movie (unsure of the book, cause I haven’t read it yet), is that she wanted to experience culture. That’s an ambitious goal for an American girl living in a city where she can get a comfortable, cheap fast food version of spirituality, carbs and freedom where ever and whenever she wants. New York is a cultured place, meaning the people who live in these far away lands bring their customs to the US. But at the end of the day, you’re not going to have the same experience at an Italian restaurant in New York, as you are in an Italian restaurant in Italy. No matter how authentic the tastes or the decor. Like a lot of the other reviewers of this film you’re taking the message far too seriously. It is an ESCAPIST film for women. People wonder all the time why women don’t get more unique films starring women – or why all movies geared towards women are the same and why we never see a heroine in atypical situations (Liz’s being that she’s confused as ever about where her life is going and why she isn’t happy). Part of the reason is that most females in the audience can’t let go of real life long enough to just enjoy the film as entertainment.
With that said – I’m a Christian and I agree that some parts of the character’s spiritual journeys were odd. Her moral choices were also interesting. Regarding Liz, I felt her search began in the wrong place but upon meeting her Indian friend and being able to relate to the awkwardness of her marriage situation in a small way, we’re shown something that Hollywood has messed up in the past a hundred times: an honest portrayal of prayer and how it affects people. Something that’s VERY realistic in this movie is how Liz in the beginning has never prayer before and doesn’t know how. She turns to God because she feels lost and stuck and needs his help. I can’t lie – I’ve felt that way before. I can really relate to that. Millions of people, Christians especially should be able to drop the ‘perfect Christian’ act at the movies and say they can relate to that too. Once she goes to India, this ‘God please help me’ prayer continues. No, it’s not prayer to the Christian God, but if anything this film has taken prayer in general and put it in the forefront of a movie. People aren’t being made fun of for praying in public, Liz isn’t mocked for wanting to strengthen her prayer life, it’s something I haven’t seen in a big Blockbuster movie before and dare I say, I liked it! With how most Americans are 100 percent against all things even slightly religious in a public forum, this film tries to change that.
And one last thing – why so condescending towards the “God is within you, as you” quote? I immediately drew a parallel to “Let the word of Christ dwell in you” scripture (Colossians 3:16). I got the ‘mmmmm’s in my movie audience when that quote was spoken the first time (probably because I live in the Bible belt), but it also did come off as comforting to know that God’s light is in you even when you don’t think it is. Is there some self-pity and emotional drama going on in the film? Yeah. But everyone’s thrown themselves a pity-party at some point in their life. It’s kinda fun to see Julia Roberts wade through those emotions on the big screen. Everyone’s had that period in their life where your emotions just won’t turn off. Liz’s confusion came through clear in the first half of the film. And while other little details weren’t as clear, I got over it and went with the ride out of a desire to see if she found herself a little happiness. And she did. I see nothing wrong with a good, colorful escapist film where the heroine gets to be happy in the end. God wants us to be happy. What’s so wrong with that?
@Melody – I find it curious that you deem the movie purely an “escapist film for women” and then you proceed to draw a number of lessons from it. Perhaps I do not understand the meaning of “escapist” but I always understood that to mean that one needn’t learn any significant lessons from the film. I would say many of your observations are valid and give credibility to their being some worthwhile lessons to be learned from this film. I have not seen it, but probably will watch it with my wife when it hits Netflix.
Secondly I would say that there is a glaring problem with “spiritual revelation” that “God is within you, as you.” The problem lies in that is contradicts the Bible’s declaration that God is completely other. Yes, as Christians, Christ dwells in us and gives us His Spirit, but that is very different from saying that “God is in you, as you.” God is certainly in those who trust His Son but not “as them.” I feel silly saying this, but I am not God. I am not even a small part of the whole that makes up God. in the end that statement would seem to contradict everything you mentioned about the lessons learned about prayer and trust of God in the movie. If it is true that “God is in you, as you,” then there is no need to pray to Him–God is you, so just tap into yourself–learn to love yourself, listen to yourself, and follow yourself.
Perhaps I am being overly critical (and again I will admit to not having seen the movie or read the book–I was simply intrigued by Carissa’s review) but I would say that spiritual mantra is not only not biblical, but not helpful as I don’t think that the lesson everyone needs to learn is to look inside themselves but rather what people desperately need is to look outside themselves to the God who made them and His Son who can save them.
It’s an escapist film that I took lessons from because I found the lessons or the messages they were trying to throw out there for the lead character’s development interesting. I thought about it a little longer than I should have (something I do without even realizing it since I started studying film) and the character’s journey is essentially part of the escape (she’s escaping this life she feels stuck in and we, as viewers, get to live through her travels for a little while). I can’t talk about the film without talking about what she supposedly learned at the end of the day.
About the “God is within you, as you” quote – I believe it’s Hindu or something that’s not Christian or drawn from the Bible at all. So I agree that you cannot find God or salvation within yourself. Ever. And I didn’t say I related directly to the saying. I just thought of that scripture and the Christian equivalent of that would be accepting the light of Christ and letting that light shine from within you (but not claiming you are the source of the light. God gave you that light, now give him props). There are more parallel’s to be drawn here and many a Christian discussion to be had over the India part of the film. However, going back to the statement, some people DO need to look inside themselves and be honest with themselves about why they’re unhappy or why their life currently isn’t working. And more importantly, they need to discover what’s missing and where they need to turn to get help. We would most sincerely hope people that are confused like Liz would come to Jesus or have someone in their life that would lead them to Jesus (omgosh, how radically different this movie would have been if she made a religious conversion). But for whatever reason, they don’t always do that or find that person. Or they think they’ve found that in another non-Christian religion (Like Liz). I just didn’t understand the implied contempt for the term right off the bat. You could have a (positive!) field day with that line in a good Bible study.
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