Thursday, August 19, 2010

Eat Pray Love

Is it possible for one scene to completely change your opinion about a movie? Can one brilliantly staged and acted sequence make a dull movie great, or at least worth while? Food for thought (get it?!...sigh), but more on this later.

If you're one of the millions of people who read Elizabeth Gilbert's insanely popular memoir, you know the gist.

Between an ugly divorce and a fleeting relationship with a younger man, Liz (Julia Roberts) has a quasi nervous breakdown when she comes to terms with the fact that she's sick of her dull, passionless NYC life. She whips up an idea to spend the year eating in Italy, praying in India and loving in Bali.

It's a novel, commendable choice for a middle-aged woman to just up and go go go. And on the page, Gilbert's whimsical (if not too winded) prose casts a sense of solidarity with the reader; we feel like we know her and her experiences. Not so much with the film.

Director Ryan Murphy knows how to shoot some groovy b-roll (as was evident in his first TV show Nip/Tuck). The way he shoots and cuts together the opening segments of Liz arriving to each city is exhilarating (namely the India segment, which is perfectly scored to M.I.A's "Boyz"). But once the actors actually sit and talk, all, more or less, goes to shit.

The film rests solely on the shoulders of Julia Roberts. If you like her, you'll like the movie, if you don't particularly care for her (ding ding) then you won't be pulled into the drama. Watching Roberts kneel on her bedroom floor and pray for the first time, I knew I should be feeling something. I knew it was a pivotal, emotional scene for the character and the film itself. But I didn't care. At all. Because she didn't make me care.

Most of the scenes play out like that. In my mind, the star of the Italian segment was the food, in India it was the cranky old Texan Liz grows to admire (played to perfection by Richard Jenkins), and the effortless Javier Bardem stole all the Bali scenes.

But, can shots of food and two male actors keep a film afloat? I'm not sure.  Which bring me to the scene I mentioned earlier.

An hour and 15 minutes into this film, towards the end of the India segment, Roberts and Jenkins share a scene that is so well done, it damn near saves the entire film.

As the two sit, Jenkins slowly delivers a monolouge of perfect restraint and utter heartbreak. Director Murphy does a very wise thing here: he doesn't move the camera, not once. There is no cutaway shot of Roberts' swollen, crying face, no slow zoom-in to Jenkins' grimaced expression. It just stands still.

Richard Jenkins
This is what great acting is all about. You forget about the technique of filmmaking and the fact that you're watching paid actors. I can imagine Murphy's direction to Jenkins in this scene: "It's just you. Do what you can with it."

Before the film started, I never thought I'd predict that Eat Pray Love would be dubbed as an Academy Award contender. But Jenkins makes this the case. The actor has been stealing scenes for years in minor roles as the ghost dad in Six Feet Under, a love stricken boss in Burn After Reading, and most notably, as a isolated man in The Visitor. But in Eat Pray Love, and this scene in particular, he delivers his best, most controlled work to date. It's one of the very best scenes of the year. See the movie for Jenkins, he gets an A, the film as a whole, give it a D+.

Eat Pray Love?  Forget that.  How about Gym, Tan, Laundry?

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