'Eat Pray Love': What About the 'Pray' Part?


Columbia Pictures

In search of an escape from pollen on Cape Cod last weekend, I went to see Eat Pray Love, mainly for the air conditioning. I certainly agree with the critiques of the movie as a prime example of a Ladies With First World Problems flick. But while the movie deals in reasonably substantive, if not exceptionally compelling ways, with the Eating and the Loving bits of Liz Gilbert's journey, the movie seemed exceptionally shallow on the Praying part. I haven't read the book, so none of this should be taken as judgment of Gilbert's spiritual developments, but it really is striking in the film.

In one of the movie's earliest scenes, Liz, in a moment of not-very-clearly-sourced desperation, gets on her knees to pray in the lovely home she owns with her husband. She clearly feels awkward and unfamiliar with the process, but it's not really clear what her religious background is, or how she conceptualizes God. At the end of her prayer session, a voice directs her back to  bed, but it sounds a lot more about her soon-to-be-ex-husband than divine guidance. It's never clear what she gets out of the session. The next time she attempts a connection with the divine, it's at the invitation of her post-divorce boyfriend, and though she doesn't feel much of a connection to the worship, she decides that on her year-long hiatus, she'll stop by his guru's ashram in India.

When she does get there, it's clear that Liz eventually learns something about calming herself through meditation, and more about how to listen to other people. But it's not clear that she ever really connects in prayer there, and by the end of the movie, she's basically decided that God resides within her, and is expressed in her living joyfully and openly. Which is all well and good, except that her conclusion is tossed off, slogan-style (for a movie that's longer than two hours, and that includes a lot of pretty scenery, there's vastly more telling than showing). And the two major actions she takes, calling on her friends to give money to help fund a house for a Balinese woman struggling to maintain custody of her daughter, and letting herself love again, aren't clearly grounded in her religious conclusions. They are essentially secular manifestations of goodness, decency, and self-confidence. 

And ultimately, that's not a very interesting conclusion. Eat Pray Love would be a more interesting movie if all the conflicts in it were more deeply felt. We see Liz say she's angsted about food and her body for years, but we never see her doing it, or feeling the consequences of it, so it's hard to feel victorious when you see her eat a Neapolitan pizza. Because we've never seen her living with a lack of faith, and she never has a major religious revelation in the movie, it's hard to see a major change. Only in love do we see the brokenness of Liz's life, and then she's the one who leaves, so it's hard to feel a huge amount of sympathy for her when she finds the Perfect Man. It all feels very Cult of Self-Esteem-y, and there's nothing wrong with wanting to feel better about yourself. But there are profound things to be said, and felt, about all the elements in Gilbert's troika. This is just not a movie that particularly explores them.
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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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