Life of Pi (2012, Ang Lee)

By definition, confinement isn’t properly cinematic. That hasn’t stopped everyone from Hitchcock to Fincher to Danny Boyle to, uh, Joel Schumacher from trying to fashion crafty entertainment in the tiniest of spaces, certainly from exploiting the suspenseful possibilities of putting a cast of characters or a single character in a claustrophobic situation and seeing what happens. Ang Lee’s Life of Pi is not a thriller. It neither begins nor ends on a lifeboat with a boy and a tiger, and its actual story seems like a labored act of ruthlessly cutting down and insulting its own premise. But the thrust of the film, the smattering of excitement in it, comes from the moments when it seems most clearly to shed all of its literary pretensions and become a simple tale of survival, one equally determined mammal against another. If that were all it was, maybe it would be a much better movie.

Instead, Pi — from a book club-beloved Booker winner by the tiresomely smug Yann Martel — amounts to a morality play about adolescent guilt. And in case you can’t draw that conclusion from the story progression, it’s all carefully laid out for you at the end, and not with the button-pushing slyness of the silly psychiatrist scene in Psycho. Our hero Pi (Suraj Sharma) narrates the tale of his childhood in a zoo, his seemingly off-topic pursuit of God in all earthly religions, his love interest (of course) and finally a move by ship to Canada. The boat sinks, zoo animals strewn all over everywhere, and Pi’s family seemingly drowns; the devastation of this is curiously glossed over, both because they actually didn’t (yet) and because the rest of the film amounts to an expression of unrelenting grief felt by a boy who wasn’t ready to know how to deal with it.

The tiger’s name is Richard Parker. He boards Pi’s lifeboat; so do some other animals, who quickly get consumed. They’re at sea for a long time together in an uneasy partnership of sorts — a keen enough idea, but in the end the enterprise is too metaphorically weak and overwrought for a fine director like Lee to do as much as he can with a more human story, so he understandably fixates instead on the technical opportunities herein presented. The film has an astonishingly otherworldly look even on a television screen; I missed it in theaters, but can only imagine what an experience it must have been. Spectacle and a feeling of being transported can sully one’s objections to a silly or pretentious story, and so Life of Pi likely makes more sense as an event than as a piece of storytelling.

To his credit, Lee — one of our most resourceful directors — goes for broke. He was last in a long line of filmmakers who were once attached to this project, significant among them M. Night Shyamalan (whose twist-centric m.o. this fits to a frustrating degree) and Alfonso Cuarón. All three are strongly visual directors — and immigrants, which lent them probably more perspective on the subject of this story than Canadian Martel has. The act of leaving home and family is the real subject of Life of Pi as Lee sees it, but David Magee’s script and the source material are so trite that all he can really do is make every scene a miracle of impossible visuals, from the animals (especially Richard Parker) themselves to the awe-inspiringly placid seascapes to the tremendously enveloping obstacles (storms and swarms) that cross Pi’s near-hopeless path. By any practical standards, this is an animated film — but the CGI is leaps and bounds above what we saw just a decade ago in the LOTR films, which doesn’t mean it won’t age as terribly as those have.

Sharma’s performance is engaging. In contrast to, say, Dick Van Dyke in the awful Disney film Lt. Robin Crusoe, USN, he’s a person you don’t particularly mind being cinematically lost at sea with — even if you do mind his adult counterpart’s constant cutesy voiceover, more of a distraction here than the frenetic editing was in 127 Hours. The crux of this technically decent film is that it proves the kind of point cinephiles never really want to admit to, that surface pleasures are very often cinematically richer than anything designed to provoke “thought.” In other words, the sheer visceral mystery and thrill of the central situation is vastly more enjoyable than the empty philosophical stuff, which begins with the long-winded prelude about Pi’s childhood, replete with the usual Hollywood nonsense about skepticism, faith and rationality, and dovetails into the final “revelation.”

That doesn’t even encompass the worst element of all: the voiceover is sourced from wraparounds wherein an “author” character, undoubtedly Martel, comes to interview Pi because he’s been told that he (and we, presumably) will come away from all of this believing in God. In fact, the film’s central argument about religious faith is that it is built on happily ignorant, chosen falsehood — which in a very real sense is no less condescending. Knowing of the true horror in the non-fantastic version of Pi’s story, of a boy who could not really cope with what for even many adults would be unendurable loss, are we meant to believe that our final choice should be belief so that we must not confront it? Given how neatly wrapped up the film seems to think it is, its answers to these questions are thorny and half-baked. Besides, Martel’s persona here is irksome by his very presence, and his emphatic over-explaining of every analogy is the most irritating thing by far in a mostly inoffensive film.

For a film this ambitious, “inoffensive” is pretty vicious slander. Ang Lee is a man who deserves ample goodwill for his versatility and visual sense, but even when he has the best material to work with, the source stymies him. The lifeboat scenes in between all the dross become after a time too repetitive and boring themselves. As a silent picture, it might have worked, but on top of everything else it has that “nothing’s impossible” air of CGI-heavy films like Hugo that actually takes me out of what story there is (the animal scenes in Bringing Up Baby are more impressive!). The “Life of CGI” joke is an unfair dismissal when a film uses the effect reasonably well and probably was a bit of magic on a large screen, but it feels like in the end it’s Ang Lee who was abandoned on a sinking lifeboat. At least he was rewarded with more than a loudmouthed writer coming over for tea.

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