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Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love: The movie speaks to the romance of the quest, but couldn't it involve more than eating enough Italian pizza to accept one's 'muffin top?' (Francois Duhamel)
Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love: The movie speaks to the romance of the quest, but couldn't it involve more than eating enough Italian pizza to accept one's 'muffin top?' (Francois Duhamel)

Judith Timson

What do Julia Roberts and Joan Rivers have to teach us about what we want? Add to ...

Ah, the journey of the North American woman.

Affluent, independent, able to access both feminist and feminine ideals and apply them to her own life. It shouldn't get any better than this. But why is she still unhappy and what does she really want?

I saw two movies this past week that gave me two different and slightly unnerving answers, one from the Hollywood let's-make-believe machine, the other from a much more hardscrabble documentary.

Women young and old are flocking to see Eat Pray Love. I saw them in groups, I saw them alone, all eager to view the cinematic version of the bestselling memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert about a wisecracking woman played by Julia Roberts, who, recovering from a difficult divorce and worried about her dependence on men, travels to three separate locations - Italy (the food!), India (the meditation!) and Bali (Javier Bardem!) - in search of her soul and herself.

Alas, for me - and my twentysomething daughter, who said she found the book "incredibly hopeful" - the movie felt like a trite, too-long travelogue. Despite Ms. Roberts's undeniable charms, she mostly comes across as self-indulgent rather than self-sufficient, and I sat there squirming, thinking it seems like hours have gone by and we're not even through India yet. Where the hell is Javier when we need him?

Finally, he shows up in Bali, where the heroine realizes she can both be herself and be in love. Pleasant, but entirely without the zing - and sting - of enlightenment.

As we left, I thought two things: 1) We've just been to see this year's Mamma Mia!, and 2) female moviegoers deserve better than this pretty heap o' platitudes.

A few days later, I ventured back into the theatre for a pathos-filled glimpse of another American woman's quest for self-sufficiency and love, the documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.

This one rattled me. The comedienne, famous for her acidic, off-colour barbs and her horror-movie iterations of plastic surgery, is 77 now and still out there performing. The movie, which covers a year in her life, depicts her playing gigs in rundown venues (she never turns anything down), humiliating herself on Celebrity Apprentice and trolling for commercials, even ones directed at seniors: "I will wear a diaper," she says. "I don't give a shit."Ms. Rivers, who comes across as hilarious and touching despite, or maybe because of, her self-denigrating jokes and her furious honesty, talks candidly about an up-and-down life that included a husband who killed himself, a lavish apartment ("I live like Marie Antoinette would have if she'd had money") and a relentless search for fame and fortune that will end only when she draws her last breath.

Yet what struck me about her life is that it was and is all about the work. She knew she was talented but her career became an endless series of auditions, not affirmations, and the rejections have been many. She has spent her whole adult life trying to prove she's got what it takes.

I saw her life as flawed in that she obsessively put all her eggs in the career basket, decreeing that only mega-success would bring her happiness, so much so that even her daughter, showbiz wannabe Melissa, says that growing up, her mother talked about "the career" as if it were another more important child that had to be fed and clothed.

There is an undeniable sense of desperation there, as if she is in a race for time to finally be authenticated before her feet get too sore to do stand-up.

So do either of these movies really speak on a broader level about women's lives? The first is about love (eschewing it, pursuing it) and the second about work (both joys and sorrows).Love and work of course are what good old Freud described as the two essential ingredients for a happy, fulfilled life.

Women keep looking for that magic mix of both, a way to support and express themselves and still get the love they need.

Eat Pray Love speaks to the romance of the quest, which used to be, in medieval times, a very male preoccupation. It says that women can go off to find the holy grail too, although I wish it involved more than eating enough Italian pizza to accept one's "muffin top."

And Joan Rivers tells the truth: If you want to be fantastically successful, you gotta get up every morning and pursue it like a hound after a fox and even then you will crash and burn but hopefully rise again.

Maybe next summer there will be a movie for women that puts it all together, the love, the work, the sense of an authentic inner and outer quest.

But I'm not holding my breath.

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