Revisiting the 1962 version of ‘Eat Pray Love’

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From June 26, 2011 – I had a vague feeling of deja vu as I sat through the vapid 2010 princess fantasy “Eat Pray Love” about a well-off lovelorn American woman licking her wounds after a divorce and a bad love affair by wolfing down pasta in Rome, avoiding squalor in India, and enjoying spa cuisine and meditation in Bali.

I went home, dug through my old DVDs and there it was — bingo! — “Rome Adventure,” starring Suzanne Pleshette.

Warner Bros. made the movie on a tight budget so the heroine — disgraced (and single) college professor Prudence Bell — had to do all of her eating, praying and loving in one location, but it is basically the same story of an American woman traveling abroad on her own to find herself.

Imagine my surprise when the old Warner Bros. movie proved to be funnier, smarter and even a little bit sexier than the pokey $60 million Julia Roberts epic.

The 1962 film marked the debut of Suzanne Pleshette who manages to rise above the silly dialogue and soapy situations to present us with a sane and funny young woman looking for her future, and love, in Italy.

Julia Roberts is placed at a real disadvantage in the adaptation of Gilbert’s bestselling spiritual and sexual journey because the charming star has never really specialized in roles that exude sexuality or spirituality. When she dims her trademark smile, the actress loses the energy and humor that made audiences fall in love with her 20 years ago in “Pretty Woman” and that served her well through later mainstream triumphs like “Erin Brockovich.”

When a blank-faced Julia sits there staring out at us, we wouldn’t have a clue as to what her character is thinking if not for the frequent voiceover narration from Gilbert’s memoir.

We’re also left wondering what an accomplished 40-something New York woman is doing with the two schmuck boy-men who are barely characterized in the scenes before she leaves town.

The end of Elizabeth’s relationships with the middle-aged Peter Pan husband (Billy Crudup) and then a shallow actor boyfriend (James Franco) look like something worth celebrating rather than getting depressed about.

Prudence Bell has a real problem in the opening scene of “Rome Adventure.” The dried-up virgins who run “Briarcroft College for Women” are about to give Pru the heave-ho for recommending an “obscene” novel (“Lovers Must Learn”) to one of her students.

After telling her supervisors they could use a little bit of the novel’s spice in their lives, Pru announces she is taking off for a place “where they really know what love is – Italy.”

Cut to Prudence saying farewell to her concerned parents as she boards the huge ship that will transport her from New York to Europe.

“What if something happens to you?,” Pru’s mom cries out.

“Mother, what if nothing did?,” Pleshette answers with a knowing twinkle in her eyes.

Joe Meyers

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