I just flew back from Ubud, on the resort island of Bali in Indonesia, where most of the Bali portion of Eat Pray Love was shot. So of course I had to see the movie as soon as we returned to Philadelphia.
In the memoir/travel book of the same name, the author, Elizabeth Gilbert, rejected the urban rat race and left her husband, her rebound lover and her life in Manhattan, hoping to find peace and serenity through travel to India, Italy and Bali. But for all the breathtaking vistas of the countries Gilbert visited, I left the movie more enthralled by the transformation of Julia Roberts than the story line, or the happy ending (in the arms of Javier Bardem) or the film's unrealistic postcard-perfect portrait of Bali. (Not many people live in the gorgeous teakwood, open-air cabin that Roberts inhabited in Ubud.)
Indonesia is, after all, a Third World country. Eighty percent of its economy is tourism-based, and much of that industry was decimated by bombings in 2002 and again in 2005. It suffers from poor health care, high infant mortality, limited rights for women and no transportation infrastructure to speak of.
The road from the airport in Denpasar to Ubud, for example, doesn't take kindly to the sort of bicycle that pedals in the film. In real life, Roberts would have been squashed between trucks, cars, cabs and motorbikes that make three lanes of traffic out of a one-and-a-half-lane byway. Nor would she have sauntered the back roads of Bali, cycling between verdant (albeit muddy) rice paddies.
Up from Pretty Woman
Roberts, on the other hand, was worth the price of admission. This glamourpuss who once routinely played bimbo roles (in films like Pretty Woman) or Wonder Woman (in Erin Brockovich, for which she won the Academy Award for best actress) has evolved at age 42 into an entirely different actress: older, wiser and unabashedly heavier too.
Her luminosity now reflects a maturity that wasn't evident in her earlier films. Roberts smiles that gorgeous smile in Eat Pray Love, too, but not quite as widely or as frequently as in her earlier films. She doesn't use her body in place of acting any more either. And by God, she thinks! You can almost see the wheels turning in her head scene by scene.
She's not only subtler and more reflective. She's also larger, and her clothes didn't come out of Vogue, either. Roberts wasn't exactly dowdy in Eat Pray Love— she was more like a real woman. In many ways, it was a fairly courageous choice of script for a star long touted as a gorgeous icon of pulchritude.
But if you've watched Roberts over the years— not so much her films as her utterances and acceptance speeches— you already know that she's not just another pretty face.
From Bette Davis to Lindsay Lohan
Still, I couldn't help thinking: What is in store for such an actress? In the past, Hollywood seemed to offer abundant real mature woman roles for real actresses like Lauren Bacall, Laraine Day, Ida Lupino, Myrna Loy, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. The scripts were written for adults, not capricious, empty-headed girl-children like Miley Cyrus and Lindsay Lohan.
Eat Pray Love isn't a great movie. It isn't even a good movie. It won't resonate 15 years from now, if indeed it's even remembered 15 years from now. But it is, for me at least, a harbinger movie. I want to see what Roberts will make of herself from this point on.
She seems to have taken to motherhood and spousehood, and that contentment plays out in her acting and her choice of roles. But Hollywood has no place for real women these days.
Roberts seems finished with a lot of things: shallow living and girly films. How she traverses this borderland between what audiences want and creating a body of work that stands the test of time, I'm not sure.
Here's hoping Eat Pray Love was merely a first step on a path toward a more robust version of cinematic womanhood, a path leading away from stardom toward real professionalism. (I understand Roberts will collaborate with director Ryan Murphy in a forthcoming film about another woman of a certain age adjusting to real issues, this time because she lost her job.)
Will Julia Roberts go the way of Botox, face-lifts and detrimental dieting? Or will the new Julia celebrate becoming a full-bodied woman playing full-bodied roles? We mature women can dream too, can't we?