When the script for Eat Pray Love landed in Richard Jenkins' inbox, one can imagine he must have twinkled at the pages-long monologue his character delivers in the film's midsection. In the monologue, Richard from Texas (as he's known in both the film and in Elizabeth Gilbert's best-selling memoir) explains the boozy, rock-bottom circumstances that brought him to an ashram in India, where he meets Gilbert (Julia Roberts), who herself has bottomed out post-divorce and gone to find herself in a spiritual quest that takes her from Italy to India to Bali. To use language as coarse and colloquial as his rascally character might: Jenkins acts the hell out of the scene.
Too bad he only has half his face to work with. Director Ryan Murphy makes a disastrous decision to shoot Jenkins in profile - the better to accommodate costar Roberts in the frame? - which means that what should have been Jenkins' "not a dry eye in the house" audition reel for awards season takes a back seat in my brain to the refrain: Why won't Murphy just scooch the camera to the right? Scooch! Scooch! Murphy repeatedly makes counterintuitive moves with his camera - tilted angles, bizarre placements and offputtingly extreme close-ups. There's a lack of clarity here, both in composition and content, and the film has the unfortunate effect of mimicking Gilbert's identity crisis.
Roberts, wearing that beatific half-smile of hers that suggests inner peace and wisdom before she's even begun her journey, is too open-faced with her emotions to signal the complexities of Gilbert's distress - over her divorce, her control issues, her rootlessness and her inability to live in the moment. There is plenty to cheer here: Jenkins and Javier Bardem (as a suitor in Bali) are terrific, the sights are gorgeous (especially in the Italy interlude, with its food-porn holy trinity of pasta, pizza and vino), and sharp, funny and moving observations frequently puncture the film's overall muzziness.
In a telling scene, Gilbert begins a speech to a table of friends: "Seeing all you happy people...." She is near happiness, but not in it, not of it; it is an itch that may well never be scratched. And so it goes with Eat Pray Love, an ambitious but confused and frustrating film that circles near catharsis, occasionally brushing its hem but not reaching it.