Despite being a 40-ish mother of three, Julia Roberts remains a bona fide movie star of the old school. However, the word "fearless" never attaches to her as an actress.
Roberts may be the most risk-averse of her peers as A-list starlets, and never seems to make decisions in the name of comedy or drama that could embarrass her. You can't imagine Roberts sporting Cameron Diaz's "hair gel," say, or committing to one of Julianne Moore's wrenching, pantsless breakdowns. The exception that proves the rule may be Erin Brockovich, where she wore an undignified, comical neck brace and won the Best Actress Oscar.
Roberts projects a subtle self-regard that seems to inhibit her from performing characters with abandon, apart from her trademark laugh and flashing overbite, which always seems to take us by surprise. Arguably Roberts makes discriminating decisions for her roles, which has kept her from the more awful rom-com trends of recent years. The result has made her a generally more reliable brand than an interesting artist. She's simultaneously the best and worst choice to star in Eat Pray Love, in which a self-conscious actress plays one woman's year of dedicated self-absorption.
Author/travel journalist Elizabeth Gilbert wrote the best-selling memoir of the same name, in which "Liz" ends her loveless marriage to her boyish husband (Billy Crudup). Despite a fling with a hunky actor (James Franco), Liz can't shake her depression, so she decides to devote a year to food, spirituality, and "me time" in Italy, India and Bali. Her editor (Viola Davis) responds with such trepidation, it's as if Liz had announced plans to sail the world in a homemade Viking boat.
Eat Pray Love's biggest problem is the way the script takes a Hollywood approach to Liz's journey and spells out her goals and actions in numbing detail. At one point Liz tells a new friend, "This is Pizza Margherita in Napoli. It's your moral imperative to eat this," as if her friend didn't know where they were or what they were eating. In that scene, incidentally, Liz spells out her new resolve to let go of food guilt and body-image issues, which segues into an amusing montage of her difficulty in zipping her jeans. But Roberts stays slim throughout the movie, despite her healthy appetite. (No Toni Collette-style method actor weight gain for her.)
The Italian sequence features the most lightly humorous touch, along with gorgeously photographed meals that practically ejaculate cream sauce at the audience. Eat Pray Love apparently leaves the fun in Italy, because the scenes at the Indian ashram nag and hector the audience. Liz barely learns the location of the Meditation Cave when she runs afoul of Richard ("Six Feet Under's" Richard Jenkins), a judgmental blowhard who calls her "Groceries" and appoints himself as her yoga drill sergeant. He spouts such aphorisms as "If you want to get to the castle, Groceries, you've gotta swim the moat," like a nightmare combination of Dr. Phil and Sawyer from "Lost." Their fractious relationship seems engineered to render spiritual challenges as a sharp, multiplex-ready movie conflict.
Director Ryan Murphy, co-creator of "Glee," helms a beautifully photographed production that features some genuinely sensuous moments, including Roberts and Franco's initial flirtation. But Liz doesn't even get to Italy until about 30 minutes in, and the film draws out to well over two hours. You're already half-comatose by the time Liz gets to Bali for her meet-cute with Javier Bardem's divorced Brazilian. He's more grown-up than Liz's previous suitors, but she resists falling in love because she wants to prove her independence from men.
Roberts never coasts through Eat Pray Love, but shoulders the responsibility to convey Liz's moments of crisis and personal evolution. Perhaps she overplays such scenes as Liz's teary first attempt to pray, but Roberts clearly takes the role seriously. Despite Roberts' work and Liz's dawning ability to empathize with others, it's ultimately hard to care very much about the transcontinental navel-gazing of such a privileged woman. Ultimately, Eat Pray Love feels like an epic-length version of the joke, "But enough about me. What do you think of me?"