Eat, pray … blow something up
August 18, 2010 - Rick Chatenever
In the age-old question of whether to go on a pilgrimage seeking the meaning of life, or just go out and mindlessly destroy a bunch of stuff, it wasn’t even close this week.
“The Expendables,” a contest between director-writer-star Sylvester Stallone and his pals to see who’s got the most testosterone, was the clear winner over Julia Roberts’ round-the-world odyssey bringing Liz Gilbert’s best-selling sensual-spiritual pilgrimage, “Eat Pray Love,” to the big screen.
Things must have been too quiet on the Venus-Mars front lately, prompting someone in Hollywood to think it might be fun to pit male and female ticket buyers so clearly against one another this week.
For Stallone, whose “Rocky” won Oscars when Jimmy Carter was still president, and whose “Rambo” became emblematic of the Reagan presidency, this new action-adventure romp of the over-the-hill gang doesn’t feel like a rerun, exactly. It’s more like Sly isn’t quite ready to hang it all up.
Granted, despite the size of the biceps, the body-covering tattoos and the endless array of cool motorcycles, planes, pickup trucks — not to mention all those knives and guns — the screen-engulfing pyrotechnics of “The Expendables” leave you with one underlying impression: Boys will be boys.
Of course, this isn’t such a bad thing for the half of the ticket-buying demographic who happen to be boys. (It’s a terminal condition that very few men actually grow out of.) And co-stars including Jason Statham, Mickey Rourke Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren along with Bruce Willis and the governor of Cullifornia making cameo appearances, look like they’re having a blast just hanging out with the guys.
The story, such as it is, casts Stallone as tattooed biker guy by day, who makes the money to pay for his toys by leading mercenary missions to faraway dictatorships for the highest bidder. The one in the film takes place on a fictitious Caribbean island where a rogue CIA agent (Eric Roberts, Julia’s brother) is propping up a puppet general to keep control of the country’s drug trade.
Despite some urban legends he once spawned on Maui, Stallone seems relaxed — dare we say, older and wiser? — no matter which hat he is wearing on either side of the camera.
As co-screenwriter, his writing is simple, but allows the characters —including Mexican actress Giselle Itie in a pivotal role —to establish their own personalities. As director, his action sequences are taut and serviceable.
Even if the title can be misread as a reference to the cast members’ waist lines, “The Expendables” accomplishes what it sets out to do — win at the box office. And for all the chaos and fire balls filling the screen, Stallone looks almost serene in their midst.
Ironically, it’s something like that —a state of inner tranquility —that author Liz Gilbert set off seeking, after a failed marriage, rebound romance and subsequent breakdown jolted her out of her Manhattan comfort zone.
Her path led to Italy to eat, India to pray and Bali to love — but ultimately wound up at the bumper-sticker truth: “Wherever You Go, There You Are.”
After phenomenal success on the best-seller list, now her story glistens on the big screen, as gorgeous as star Roberts and all those cinematic settings can make it. “Glee’s” co-creator Ryan Murphy makes an auspicious big-screen directing debut, and Brad Pitt sneaks into the credits as executive producer.
With Roberts’ winning blend of natural grace and disarming humor, along with fine supporting performances by Javiar Bardem, Richard Jenkins, Hadi Subiyanto, Billy Crudup and James Franco, the movie tries to have it both ways: It’s a feast for the senses —the food shots in Italy or the scenery in Bali drip with pleasure — that seeks to serve up nourishment for the soul from people met along the journey.
Despite Oprah’s fondness for the book, apparently it has its detractors. Quite possibly they’re motivated by envy, pure and simple, at Gilbert’s mega-success, now trickling down into package tours following in her footsteps.
But still, there’s a conundrum posed by stars like Julia Roberts, whose radiant personal charms and charisma are so vast, they overwhelm the original character —the memoirist’s version of herself, flaws and all. I kept thinking, if Liz Gilbert really was Julia Roberts, she wouldn’t have anything to write about.
Even in the squalor of India, there’s nothing in “Eat Pray Love” that’s not beautiful to look at. But its spiritual quest leaves some viewers still hungry. It’s enlightenment lite — more taste, less filling.
Or maybe it’s another of those truths that lie just beyond my grasp — a higher form of knowledge that got lost in that vast deep space somewhere between Venus and Mars.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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