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MOVIE REVIEW: Roberts savors sweet taste of success with mouth-watering story of self-discovery

Photo by Fran ois Duhamel

Photo by Fran ois Duhamel

Eat Pray Love (PG-13)

3 out of 4 stars

Over the last decade, Julia Roberts has made a couple of art films ("Full Frontal," "Closer"), done voice-overs ("Charlotte's Web," "Ant Bully") and turned in some clutch supporting work ("Charlie Wilson's War," the "Ocean's Eleven" franchise).

In that time as leading lady she's also had a string of box office duds ("Mona Lisa Smile," "The Mexican," "Duplicity," et. al) and hasn't had a bona fide smash since "Erin Brockovich" in 2000. It's not time for Roberts to hit the panic button just yet, but she really could use a big hit right about now.

Although it's more of a big budget art film than traditional, crowd-pleasing mainstreamer, "Eat Pray Love" could be just what Roberts needs. If the audience (about 98 percent female) at the preview screening is any indicator, it's also the ideal counterprogramming choice this weekend for women and a few couples not interested in teen fantasy or Sly Stallone's umpteenth comeback.

Based on the enormously popular memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert, "EPL" is a three-part story of one woman's self-discovery and spiritual rebirth spread out over one year, three continents and 173 minutes of screen time. It's not as New Age as that description indicates; there's plenty of humor to be found, but it's not the light romantic comedy Roberts' middle-of-the-road fanbase might want. It's not exactly a slog but it does require plenty of patience and a tolerance for subtitles.

Liz Gilbert (Roberts) is a successful writer of fluffy travel and lifestyle books, yet is miserable in her marriage to the complacent and unmotivated Stephen (Billy Crudup). Liz's editor/friend Delia (Viola Davis) thinks it's just a phase but Liz is visibly frayed, mentally spent and romantically unfulfilled.

After a rebound fling with an actor (James Franco) tanks, Liz decides to chuck it all. In a move that only people with mid-six-figure incomes could pull off, she makes plans for a sojourn that will take her to Italy, India and Bali. Why those places? Italy has killer food, India will provide spiritual cleansing and Bali, well ... Bali is where, as more than one character puts it, everyone has a fling.

As the trip progresses, Liz makes friends with people sharing similar goals, interacts with the (sometimes too stereotypical) locals and gets the metaphoric system flush she wanted.

Simply based on the sheer beauty of their locales, the segments shot on location in Italy and Bali fare the best. Roberts is regularly bathed in golden afternoon natural light and it looks spectacular. The photography of the dining passages in Italy alone should be required viewing for any serious foodie. The India portion offers little in the way of visuals but does include a riveting performance by Richard Jenkins, one of Hollywood's premier character actors.

This is certainly not the film one might expect from co-writer/director Ryan Murphy, the creator of the "Nip/Tuck" and "Glee" TV shows. There's not a whiff of sarcasm or black humor and the infrequent sex takes place way off screen. It's also a far cry from the squirmy "Running with Scissors," the other Murphy adaptation of a best-selling memoir.

"EPL" is the flipside of the "Sex and the City" misfires. It's a full-blown chick flick and one that should and probably will be seen in packs. The food and landscapes replace gaudy fashion with matters of the soul standing in for sex and gossip. Both offer angst and midlife crisis issues and although it doesn't always hit its marks, "EPL" at least tries to dig a little deeper.

Presented in English with occasional subtitled Italian, Hindi and Balinese. (Sony/Columbia)