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Eat Pray Dish: Our panelists give their take

JOHANNA: I think it all started with that book cover: the clean white background, the simplicity of the words eat, pray, love formed, respectively, out of pasta, prayer beads and orchid petals. New York journalist Elizabeth Gilbert's memoir of the year she spent living in Italy, India and Bali, searching for food, God, herself - and ultimately, a new boyfriend - looked like something you wanted to eat.

Pretty soon it was something you couldn't avoid: The book, which hit No. 1 in the spring of 2007, sold eight million copies in the U.S. alone. It was discussed on every chat show, including Oprah's. Travel companies touted Eat Pray Love tours. Tourism in Bali, in particular, jumped radically. Writer Andrew Gottlieb penned a guy's-view parody, called Drink Play F@#k, which Warner Bros. is developing for Steve Carell.

And now that EPL is a glossy movie starring Julia Roberts, it's really unavoidable, from billboards and TV ads to merchandise tie-ins. Even the Home Shopping Network is hawking EPL wares.

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So what's this all about? What did you think of the book?

LYNN: It feels too much like a journalist's con: Eat, Pray, Huge Advance.

AMY: I didn't fall in love with it. Not even close (although full disclosure: I skipped many parts).

LYNN: I remember that Jesus is very chatty in it. In the movie, that, and obvious diarrheal scenes, are muted.

JOHANNA: I'm thankful for both those omissions. What do we think of the movie?

LYNN: The movie is hypnotic, like taking a trip - which will be a great relief to those of us whom God does not send to Balinese paradise.

AMY: I was excited to see Eat Pray Love on the big screen because I love Julia Roberts so much and it's been a while since we've seen her in this type of film ( Valentine's Day does not count). Post-screening, though, I can't make up my mind.

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On the one hand, I found it played up the schmaltz - from the music to the stock characters. On the other, five words: Julia Roberts and Javier Bardem. I think there was a point where I stopped watching the movie as an adaptation of the book and just resigned myself to the idea of it being a delicious two-hour escape.

JOHANNA: Two hours plus, and about an hour of that is swoony montages - you get your travel-points' worth. It is completely gorgeous, and I was thankful that a gay man, Ryan Murphy (whose work includes Nip/Tuck, Running with Scissors and Glee - all very stylized) directed it, because the men in it were outrageously appealing: Billy Crudup as Liz's husband (his lack of ambition causes her to leave him, setting the plot in motion); James Franco as an actor she has an affair with; and Bardem as the love she finds in Bali. The whole thing was like the Hunk Olympics: Billy with the bronze; James gets the silver; and Javier - pure gold.

But what do you think the EPL phenom is all about on a deeper level? Why has Gilbert's adventure struck such a chord, and especially in women?

LYNN: It appeals to so many women because it's filled with simple answers to solipsistic questions. Everyone keeps urging Liz to "forgive yourself!" Why? The premise is opaque: What has she done, besides leave a very hot Billy Crudup?

JOHANNA: For a movie that's purportedly about "getting to know your true self," I actually got to know very little about Liz. It was all too remote for me. I never cried, for example, and I cry at TV commercials.

AMY: I did find her moment of desperation a bit absurd. I mean, here she is with an attractive, doting husband who wants to have her babies.

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JOHANNA: I usually love a prickly heroine, and resent it that most "women's stories" revolve around tragedy. I want a kick-ass bitch who does what she wants.

LYNN: The kick-ass bitch is as contrived as the lovesick chub-queen. I like tragically grotesque heroines: a drunken Joan Crawford, say, imperiously ordering foreigners to mix her a vodka and Pepsi, while exhaling cigarette smoke through her nostrils. Then she pulls out her negligee and hatchet.

AMY: Yes, I'd be pals with Joan over Carrie Bradshaw any day.

JOHANNA: I just can't get a handle on Liz. Like you, Lynn, I still don't understand what she was praying for. I didn't believe in her eating - someone should ban skinny actresses from trying to appeal to regular gals by bemoaning their non-existent muffin tops.

LYNN: I agree about the fake fat, but liked how Roberts let herself look like what she is: a mature, oftentimes dowdy-earthy woman.

There's that scene in Rome when she is lumbering along in a hideous outfit and is almost trampled by boys chasing a beautiful girl - I feel this is a nice reference to the star letting go of her 20-year reign as Pretty Woman, or, at least, a sign of her complicating what it means.

AMY: I agree with you, Lynn. But can I just say that I adore the expression magra-falsa that Felipe (Bardem) uses to praise her: elegant and slender from afar but fleshy and round up close. Bless those Brazilians!

JOHANNA: Greatest. Compliment. Ever. But I want to get back to the idea of a "woman's" story.

Gilbert recently gave an interview to Entertainment Weekly that decried the idea that, no matter how many people responded passionately to her tale, how long it crowned the bestseller lists, and how much money it made, it couldn't actually be any good, because it's "just" a woman's story - and women have no taste. What do you think?

LYNN: Listen to her! As if she is the new Isak Dinesen. More like Sophie Kinsella: Shopaholic Takes the Ashram. I think that Gilbert, having written a pleasing, trashy sort of memoir, is now using politics to defend its artistic merits, which is preposterous.

Consider the Calcutta (Pray) sequence. The only allusion to the systemic oppression of Indian women is an arranged marriage. When the geeky, intellectual young bride-to-be is distraught, Liz prays spiritual gibberish that she and her husband will stare at each other with love. And at the wedding, the bride, now unrecognizable without her glasses and personality, thanks her. This is not a woman's movie, it is a movie about a woman on a blissfully self-indulgent (Think Club Med without the "d") vacation.

AMY: Yeah, sure. But the only thing I'm tempted to complain about is that I'm not the one on it!

JOHANNA: I love it: Club Me, where you can always get a good table for dinner.

Gilbert's story distills my problem with spiritual quests in general: Is trying to be a better person just a really great excuse to think about only yourself all day long?

Plus, remember Liz's opening voice-over? She insists that no matter what hideous travails women go through, the only thing they really want to talk about is the cute boy huddled nearby.

AMY: Don't we all, to some extent?

JOHANNA: Really, do we all? Don't some women actually think higher-minded thoughts, at least occasionally? This is why women's pictures have earned such a bad rap. The goal is only ever one thing: Land a man. The opening voice-over to the first Sex and the City movie rankled me for the same reason. Carrie says something like "Women come to New York in search of labels and love."

Wrong. I went to New York for a career.

LYNN: It is an appalling insult to women (and queer women!) to posit them, always, as boy-crazy half-wits. Simone de Beauvoir was sexually obsessed with Sartre yet she managed to write The Second Sex at the same time. Is multitasking strictly about "Hello! Yoga class! Kids' soccer!" - to cite a recent ad?

This movie distinguishes itself by adding "Pray" to its womanly catalogue of desires. Yet, Liz is in Rome, and manages to convey that the city is a gigantic secular pasta restaurant.

AMY: Do either of you notice how food is increasingly becoming as erotic as sex in films? Like Liz's nonna landlord in Rome says, "All American girls want is pasta and sausage!"

JOHANNA: We-e-ll, I don't think she was talking about the kind of sausage you fry. But the food looked insanely delicious, and Murphy gave it several montages of its own, as well as lingering close-ups.

But again - realizing that I am the team crankpot here - I resent foodie-ism as yet another chick trope. Meryl Streep and her three pals cackling about pie and vaginas (ew!) in It's Complicated. Amy Adams's eyes rolling back into her head as she eats chocolate cake in Julie & Julia. You never see men obsessing - or orgasming - over food. Other than Homer Simpson over doughnuts.

LYNN: The direction of this movie is unusual, though - one of the first of many jokes that the packed house did not laugh at is a cruel swipe at Liza Minnelli. And the lavishly gazed-upon beauty is male. Roberts gets one nice backlit shot, but is mostly looking like (and laughing like) a mallard. Ultimately, it is a confusing chick flick, more SATC than a Nancy Meyers empower-a-thon.

AMY: I think I go into a movie like EPL with expectations that I will not come out of it feeling empowered. And I'm okay with that. Sometimes you want an aged, full-bodied pecorino, and sometimes you want, well, good ol' American sliced cheese.

JOHANNA: I'm kind of anguished over women's movies, to be honest with you. I'm not in favour of narrowing the gender gap by simply replacing all the "he's" in a script with "she's," as just happened with the Angeline Jolie thriller Salt (originally developed for Tom Cruise). I do think men and women view the world differently, and I like to see the differences.

But it's a shame Hollywood can't make more movies along the lines of the Julia half of Julie & Julia: the story of a mature, rounded heroine who made a huge difference in people's lives, albeit in a traditionally female way. And I would love to see more movies in which women talk to each other, without resorting to screeching about pie.

LYNN: I remember loving the Reginald Hudlin film Boomerang (starring Eddie Murphy) in 1992, because it was an all-black cast, yet there was no political imperative. As critic Leslie Sanders has noted of Zora Neale Hurton's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Boomerang is political because it is simply about people - not ciphers, not symbols - going about their lives.

I like the cheese Amy calls chick flicks, as a genre, but I wish there were more films about women drinking, playing, praying, thinking … quite simply, inhabiting the world.

AMY: I'd like to see Grumpy Middle-Aged Women starring Glenn Close and Mo'Nique as directed by Kathryn Bigelow in a script by Jodie Foster (joke!). I agree with Lynn 100 per cent. There's no female equivalent to the bromance films of Apatow/Rogen/Hill et al. that skips over the neon cocktails and wardrobe-change montages. I think this weekend's box office will offer insight into whether genre still has an audience.

LYNN: The world is moving slowly when Barbie's now quite old catchphrase "We girls can do anything!" still seems, representationally, so far away. Then again, anything can happen. Sook Yin Lee directs Britney Spears and Avital Ronnell in the remake of Weekend at Bernie's, as envisioned by Barbara Gowdy? This is where the praying comes in.

JOHANNA: Amen to that. I think.

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