Everything comes in threes (the magic number!) in Eat Pray Love, Glee creator Ryan Murphy's extrapolation from the Elizabeth Gilbert lifestyle bestseller. Julia Roberts' quest to find herself takes her to three locations - Italy, India and Bali - and involves crossing paths (and hearts) with three men. There is the Immature Boy-Man: Billy Crudup as the husband trying to force Roberts' Liz into a lifestyle she doesn't want to lead. There is The Rebound Kid: James Franco as a practising yogi who advises our heroine to look East, and who is paid such little attention in general by the film he comes to resemble a signpost with a winning smile.
Finally - it taking something of an eternity to get to him, in a film running two hours and twenty minutes - there is The One in Javier Bardem: knocking our heroine off her bicycle in Bali, and - shortly thereafter - coming to sweep her off her feet. Bardem is such an unlikely, scruffily vivacious screen presence - he looks like a hunky troll, keen to hide Liz under his bridge - that Eat Pray Love can't help but pick up upon his arrival, but his is a nothing part, really, and these three actors, carefully selected to represent an appeal to each of the film's three primary markets (the US, Europe and Asia), are never much more than stepping stones in the Gilbert-Murphy worldview: Liz only ever seems to be a hop, skip and jump away from happiness.
As a travelogue, the film adheres closely to Hollywood's usual selective recognition of other cultures. Italy is a Fellini movie circa 1960, all football, scooters and groups of lusty young men chasing dark-haired lovelies through the village square. It is also, lest we forget, a place of food, thus the ideal location for the film to set out its lite-feminism thesis with regard to body image: faced with a burgeoning muffin-top, Liz insists "tomorrow, we go buy bigger jeans", which might have sounded authentically liberating if it didn't seem so much like one form of consumption superceding another. This central section starts to resemble I Am Love stripped of the latter film's distinguishing style: instead of Tilda Swinton going into raptures over a hand-crafted prawn risotto, we get Julia wolfing down a very ordinary-looking spag bog, which I think even my limited culinary gifts might have stretched to.
The whole is as soapy and diaphanous as one might expect from the source material - we're left in little doubt Gilbert's thesis came first, and everything else (including a multi-million-dollar merchandising industry, its own guarantor of a kind of happiness) followed - but it has lively pockets. During the couple's alimony hearing, Crudup's explosion of rage and heartbreak is an example of premium-grade thespian empathy for a character who knows he can't, or won't allow himself to, grow up; Richard Jenkins has a film-stopping monologue as a fellow traveller recalling the day his wife and child left him - a moment that obliges Roberts to listen for a while, rather than resort to her default mode of gabble and gush.
You could argue these are no more than Oscar-night clips, but - as his present TV day-job bears out - Murphy knows how to write sincere, emotionally supple material for his actors when the situation calls for it. There's also something vaguely appealing in watching Murphy trying to coax trace elements of humility (not to mention humanity) from his star, after a decade of increasingly animatronic Roberts performances. Eat Pray Love is as much Julia seeking a rebirth as Liz, and at a time when the pulling power of our movie stars, their ability to obtain second or third chances from an audience, is approaching an all-time low (cf. the box-office of Knight and Day) to boot. In so far as anyone who draws down $15 million a picture can be considered an underdog, she is it - and in our ultra-Botoxed age, you may even come to cheer the tiny yet discernable patch of crinkles Roberts sports high on her forehead, as though someone had stapled a solitary McCoy (or, for my American readers, a single Ruffle) thereabouts.
Alas, the rest of the film is stuck with the usual arrogance of the self-help manual - it wants us to heed to it, as Liz does to her various guides, yet it seems more than anything else a defensive measure on Murphy and Gilbert's part that one of the wisdoms being passed on here insists we should attribute vast significance to the least significant of things. The emotional climax is a showdown on a beach, as Roberts declines Bardem's offer of a boat trip, citing "a loss of balance", and he challenges her to look into his eyes and tell him she's in love with him. The standard needless third-act chick-flick bust-up ensues, complete with much weeping and hyperventilating, but no-one stops for a minute to consider where exactly Liz stands on commitment, or whether she can, in fact, express herself sexually and romantically. Maybe she's just afraid of boats.
Eat Pray Love opens nationwide from Friday.