It's a fascinating weekend at the box-office in terms of what is available to viewers, and whatever ends up on top, it feels to me like everyone can find something they'll enjoy if they hit a theater.
I'm on the record already about how much I love "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World," and in a perfect world, it would outgross "Avatar" by Monday. I wish I could be equally enthusiastic about "The Expendables," but the more I think about it, the more disappointed I am by the total lack of ambition of the film, which ultimately just feels like every other crappy direct-to-video Avi Lerner movie with a few more famous faces than normal.
Of the three major releases this weekend, "Eat Pray Love" is probably the least likely fit for my blog, and I've been sent letters in the past from readers outraged over what they see as my bias against "chick flicks." It's somewhat amazing to me that so many smart women will defend a genre that frequently treats them like morons beneath contempt, but I guess I understand the protectiveness. I may think a lot of what gets released in the superhero/comic book genre is junk, but when I read Jeffrey Wells with one of his stupid bitter "I hate fanboy movies" rants, I get defensive on behalf of the good films in the genre that make it worthwhile, conveniently forgetting all the crap that comes along with that. I think it's the same way with women who feel like they are under-served by Hollywood... they'll defend anything that even remotely looks like what they want, hoping they'll get some good films that justify that defense along with the 900 shitty "Kate Hudson needs a dude" movies that get released each year.
Lately, there's been a lot of talk about the Bechdel Test, a way of judging films on a quota system that sounds like a way to balance a shocking injustice at first, but which seems to me to value rigid rules over the simple expression of a point-of-view by an artist. To pass the test, there must be at least two female characters in your film with actual names, they must talk to each other at some point, and it must be about something other than a man. I certainly see the value in looking at your film through that filter, but I don't think every film has to pass that test. I just think it's key that not every film fail that test. More importantly, though, is that a film, whether it fails that test or not, treats its audience with respect and offers up something akin to actual human behavior during its running time, and that is the test that most Hollywood "romantic comedies" or "chick flicks" fail utterly.
When I sat down to "Eat Pray Love" last night, I realized that I had totally blanked on the identity of the filmmakers behind it. It was one of those rare cases where I just couldn't remember anything about who wrote it or directed it. And since the film has no opening titles at all, I spent the entire film in the dark. It's liberating in a way, because I didn't have all of the contradictory feelings I have about Ryan Murphy and his TV work crowding in on my experience. I think the first season or two of "Nip/Tuck" was one of the most joyously amoral bits of soap opera entertainment ever devised for American TV, but boy, when that show fell off the cliff, it just kept falling and falling and falling, and when I tried checking out a few episodes from the final season, every bit of the wit and trashy pleasure of that first run of episodes was absent. Maybe he was busy getting his new show, "Glee," up and running, and that show certainly came out of the gates with that same sort of "We know exactly what series we are making and we're going to leave nothing on the table" sort of attitude and energy. Will it continue to strike the right balance with the camp and the music and the humor and the heart? Well, we'll see. It's got to be hard to balance the weight of expectation that comes with being a monster hit in the first year.
And speaking of balancing expectation, when you're adapting a best-selling book with a huge devoted audience and the endorsement of Oprah Winfrey, that crushing anticipation has to be the scariest part of the process. Murphy, working with his long-time collaborator and co-writer Jennifer Salt, has done his best in turning Elizabeth Gilbert's non-fiction book into a narrative that avoids many of the traps of what it typically thought of as filmmaking for women, and part of that may be because he refused to play that game at all. Yes, Julia Roberts stars as Gilbert, and yes, this is a movie that deals largely with emotions and relationships and a woman finding her place in the world, but it bears as much in common with, say, "The Runaway Bride" as John Carpenter's "The Thing" does with "Saw IV." Same genre, ostensibly, but that's about it.
And like it or not, Julia Roberts stands for the genre as a sort of a walking embodiment, and her leap into overnight superstardom with "Pretty Woman" is part of the mythology that made her a major media figure from that moment on. She has starred in a number of films that marked or created seismic shifts in what got produced, movies like "My Best Friend's Wedding" and "Erin Brockovich", and she's made more than her fair share of big-budget movie-star-vehicle crap, too. This is her 33rd movie since "Pretty Woman" in 1990. She made movies like she was being chased for most of the '90s. Just one right after another. "Dying Young" and "Flatliners" and "Sleeping With The Enemy" and "I Love Trouble." None of them any good, all of them designed specifically to groom her like an old-school movie star. There's no joy in those movies. There's no sense that anyone involved with "Mary Reilly" enjoyed what they were doing or had any particular faith in it. There's a perfunctory quality to films like "The Pelican Brief." They exist. They are slick. They just slide right past, into perpetual cable round-robin exploitation, leaving no mark on the audience, each one reinforcing her name, her place in the strata: "Julie Roberts. Movie Star. Julia Roberts. Movie Star."
The thing of it is, I like Julia Roberts, Actor. I think she can actually be quite good given the right cast and the right material. She is director-dependent, and in her case, it seems like she has to really trust the filmmaker to give them something genuine. She can do great work... but she doesn't unless she's surrounded by great work on all sides. Her best films are the ones where the material is strong to begin with, where she's got a cast worth playing with, and where the director has a real voice. I'm a big fan of "Notting Hill," which I think is Richard Curtis's best movie. I know the crowd-pleasing "Love Actually" has vocal fans, but for me, "Notting Hill" is the one he got just right. A big part of that is the way Roberts seemed to demolish her carefully-constructed screen image with one stroke, offering up a film that seemed to say, "You're not allowed to complain if you built the box you're trapped in." She was aware of that "Julia Roberts, Movie Star" persona, and as she moved forward, she appeared in fewer films, picking work that was almost a refutation of the sort of thing she used to do. The "Ocean's" franchise for Soderbergh. "Duplicity." "Closer." "Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind." "Charlie Wilson's War." She's come a long way from "America's Sweethearts," and I think it's as impressive an evolution of box-office clout as the one George Clooney has managed. When she digs deep, what she comes up with is impressive, and there are moments where "Eat Pray Love" is on par with the best work she's done so far.
The film as a whole has some issues, but I'm puzzled by some early buzz that was openly hostile towards it. It's a warm, adult, generous film that takes its time painting a very specific picture. It's the sort of film that I would urge anyone interested to see theatrically. Robert Richardson's cinematography is not overly picture-postcard, but instead manages to impart a tangible sense of place, an earthy connection to the landscapes of Italy, India, and Bali. The "love" of the title is with place as much as people, and Richardson certainly isn't afraid of the romantic image. But this wasn't the preposterously lush travel porn I expected, and that's a strong choice. On a bigscreen, the sort of constantly moving perspective of the film is immersive, which help during the rocky first act. There's a lot of good material in the film's set-up, but the way it plays as a film is disjointed, and it's really only once she's made her mind up and pulled off the band-aid of her marriage that the film lurches to life. Once it does, though, it hits a sort of stride, and there are big chunks of the film that work. I think there's a lot of genuine pain in the way the film depicts the collapse of Elizabeth's marriage to Stephen, played by Billy Crudup. The failure of each marriage is unique, and more often than not, it's played out in very bland, broad fashion. This stuff feels well-observed and sadly honest. There's some shorthand, sure, but it seems to come from a real place. The way that marriage then echoes through the rest of the film pays off in a dramatic gamble, a metaphor-as-epiphany that I thought made a lovely punctuation, and which sort of paid off the entire subplot.
Two of the co-stars Roberts works with in the film sum up what is good about "Eat Pray Love." Richard Jenkins, aka The Man With The Saddest Eyes In The World, plays "Richard From Texas," a man Elizabeth meets at an ashram in India. He seems like a spiritual bully at first, browbeating her towards enlightenment, but gradually he reveals the broken heart of the man behind the bluster. It's a canny performance by one of the best character actors working, and his relationship with Roberts is the perfect set-up for the third-act introduction of Javier Bardem as Felipe, a divorced man who retreated to Bali to recover. He's great in the movie, charming and patient and deeply interested in understanding this American woman he runs off the road on her bike. If he didn't, then Elizabeth wouldn't meet the healer Wayan (Christine Hakim), one of the many important teachers on her journey, so their accidental encounter leads to many of the most important relationships of her life. That sort of casual miracle is what Murphy and Salt's script is built on, and it's a little mechanical at times. It seems determined to drag tears out of the audience, when the quiet, underplayed moments are the ones that pack the true firepower.
There's this entire publishing bonanza that's erupted in the last few years regarding these "one year" books. People pick something and do it for a year and write about the outcome. The end. Some of the books are well-written, some are not, but there's no escaping the formula of it all at this point. We're just now starting to see examples of the type making their way to the bigscreen, and it's probably no coincidence that "Julie & Julia" was last year's big Sony August counter-programming movie. Like that film, the performances here elevate things to such a degree that it's hard to dismiss the film. Murphy and Salt don't really deliver any deeper truths along the way on Elizabeth's spiritual journey, but that's little surprise. That seems nearly impossible to dramatize, so you end up paying lip service to it. "Are you meditating?" "Yep." Boom. You're spiritual. It's faith-as-tourism, and it's a hard subject to wrestle with on film. The idea of found family, the way we build community around us as we move from stage to stage in our lives, is much more potent, and that's what Murphy and Salt get right. It helps that they are filmmakers, because that's exactly what happens from project to project. Each time, you start a new community, and you hope that it will turn into something coherent and real, and that sense of family will then translate to a film that has a real voice, that tells its story particularly well. I found the film most moving when it dealt directly with our need for people who understand and accept us, faults and all, and who support us as we constantly reach for something more. Some knowledge, some truth, some beauty, some pleasure. Roberts deserves respect for the way she gradually brings Elizabeth into focus, completely with some major backpedals, revealing only at the end that radiant spirit that has kept the audience watching her for the past two decades.
"Eat Pray Love" opens everywhere this Friday.
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