A trip to bountiful

"Eat Pray Love" overpacks its bags, but Julia's journey to joy includes plenty of relatable moments.

Word of advice to anyone planning a global, in-search-of-self trot: Don't cram your suitcase so full that you smother your goal.

Elizabeth Gilbert's memoir "Eat, Pray, Love" spoke, deeply, to many of its 7 million readers. After divorcing her husband, Liz traveled to Italy, an Indian ashram and Bali, learning as much about herself as her destinations. The film version's biggest challenge? The road to self-discovery is littered with clichés.

Julia Roberts' new movie does a lot of things right, avoiding preachiness, the typical saccharine soundtrack and cultural stereotyping, though a salty-tongued Roman landlady -- "All you American girls want is pasta and [wink, wink] sausage" -- and a smiling-raisin Balinese wise man dance close to the edge.

Liz, a successful New York writer with a pretty darn enviable life, somehow appears more sympathetic than whiny when she tells her pal (the perennially underused Viola Davis): "I need a change, I have no pulse, my appetite for life is gone."

Much has been made of "Eat Pray Love" being the antidote not only to male-driven summer blockbusters, but to such ode-to-womanhood misfires as "Sex and the City 2" and "The Women" (the remake). That it is, but we shouldn't hail a flawed, though fun, effort as perfection just because we're parched for its themes.

Some reflections of real middle-aged women's lives that are refreshing, if not astonishing, to see on a big screen: A husband (Billy Crudup) doesn't have to be an abusive monster or serial adulterer for a woman to fall out of love with him. A rebound guy -- even one as adorable as James Franco -- can be just that, no more. A woman dining alone in a romantic piazza isn't a tragic figure. And a woman blithely accepting her muffin-top (suspend disbelief, Julia Roberts does not have one) without a trace of self-disparagement could be a first in American cinema.

But where's the deft insertion of humor we expect from director Ryan Murphy, the Hollywood hot property behind the hit television series "Glee" and "Nip/Tuck"? Most jokes fall flat, especially a visual one that compares women rejoicing over being able to zip up too-tight jeans to men cheering a soccer game score -- a Euro-Sex and the City moment if ever there was one.

Roberts is as engaging, luminous and resistant to criticism as ever, but Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins ("The Visitor") runs away with the best performance by several lengths. As a Texan in recovery who befriends Liz at an ashram -- calling her "Groceries" because of her healthy appetite -- Jenkins also scores the biggest tearjerker scene. Underneath his wisecracks ("The first rule in India is the only thing you touch is yourself") writhes a heart far more broken than Liz's.

Javier Bardem, who has never more closely resembled a sensitive bull painted by Picasso (Blue Period), does his best with the limitations of his rushed role. By the time Liz gets to Bali, she must fall in love, inexplicably lash out at Bardem, then reconsider at the speed of light.

Unlike Liz, the filmmakers don't stretch their boundaries enough to truly satisfy. With this story and cast, they could have gone for glory, but settled for so-so with sprinkles on top by trying to squeeze in too much of the book.

It may be too much to expect for one mass-market film to offer more than sample-size enlightenment. But it does deliver a lot of what audiences want more of: the chance to compare Liz's self-made traps and strong but unspecified yearnings to their own.

After Jenkins' character notices Liz looking sad at a Hindu wedding, he guesses correctly: "Thinking about yours? Funny thing about weddings, they always make you think of yourself."

So does this film. Before setting off for the other side of the world, restless Liz says, "I need to be unnerved."

Who doesn't? Pity the husband or boyfriend who opts to see the weekend's other big release, the machofest "The Expendables," instead of EPL-ing it with his mate. He'll be blindsided when she comes home from the theater to announce, "I'm going on a trip. A long one. Alone."

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046

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  • Julia Roberts in "Eat Pray Love."

  • "Eat Pray Love"

  • EAT PRAY LOVE

    ★★ 1/2 out of four stars

    Rated: PG-13 for brief language, sexual references and male rear nudity.

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