There’s a scene during the "pray" portion of Eat Pray Love, the new adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling memoir, in which the main character, Liz (Julia Roberts), who is staying at an ashram in India, puts a pin on her shirt announcing she is “in silence.” Not 10 minutes later, the pin comes off again.
While Liz does eat, pray, and love in the movie, mostly what she does is talk. She talks to her friends, she talks to her husband and boyfriend, she talks to strangers she meets in her travels, she talks to herself. When she’s not talking out loud, we are hearing voice-over narration (much of it taken verbatim from the book), or the contents of the e-mails she writes, or the dialogue from a presumably autobiographical play she has written. Either director Ryan Murphy doesn’t trust himself enough to dramatize Liz’s emotional journey or he doesn’t trust Roberts to reveal her character’s feelings through gesture and expression, because he doesn’t leave a single thought unspoken, a single emotion unarticulated. When Liz watches a wedding in India, we not only see a flashback to Liz’s own wedding, we also hear a friend say, “Are you thinking about your own wedding? Me, too.” Thanks for clearing that up.
Film is a visual medium, and the best directors exploit it to tell their stories with an economy of words. Hitchcock could compress pages of exposition into a single shot, and actresses such as Ingrid Bergman conveyed an entire character with a glance or smile. Dialogue illuminated relationships, not plots. But with several recent movies, especially romantic comedies aimed at female audiences, the art of dramatization has been jettisoned in favor of hyperverbalization. Characters go to exotic locations wearing cute outfits, and then sit around and talk, or write, or blog about the experience. We know exactly what they’re feeling because they tell us—in many, many words.
This trend may have started with Bridget Jones’s Diary, the film adaptation of which featured much of the book’s wry first-person narration. But telling really replaced showing with the Sex and the City movies, based on the TV show, in which Carrie Bradshaw describes every thought and feeling that flits through her head. In Julie & Julia, we were treated to liberal excerpts from Julie Powell’s blog and Julia Child’s letters. It’s as though the directors of these films thought that being true to the source material meant cramming in as much of the original text as possible.
As a result, these films feel less like art and more like self-help industrial films. No one says anything other than exactly what she means, and no one does anything that contradicts what she says. In Eat Pray Love perfectly nice scenes, like Liz enjoying pizza with a friend, are ruined by lectures from Liz about how important it is to enjoy your pizza. This is a movie in which characters say things like “Won’t you be unnerved?” (by going to a meditation service), “I need to be unnerved,” “You sound happy,” “I’m an actor,” and “I don’t know who I am anymore.” We, on the other hand, know exactly who they are, because they keep telling us over and over again. Who they aren’t, unfortunately, are remotely believable characters, characters who might behave in contradictory ways, or fail to understand their every motivation, or simply shut up once in a while.