Life of Pi a Flop from Top to Stop

Directed by Ang Lee
20th Century Fox, 127 mins. PG-13 (gratuitous 3D special effects)

Yann Martel’s Life of Pi was a surprise winner of Britain’s 2002 Man Booker Prize. It’s an unusual novel that blends magical realism, fable, and fictional autobiography (and there’s little way to tell if the latter is intended to be literal or imagined). At least three other directors contemplated a treatment of Martel’s novel, gave up, and declared it unfilmable. Would that Ang Lee had heeded their warning; his attempt at the book is a flop from top to stop–a crashing bore punctuated by cheap thrills, contrived structure, and lowest common denominator storytelling.

The protagonist Pi (Irrfan Khan) goes by a diminutive that is short for Piscine Militor Patel. He’s a lad who comes of age in India and is absurdly saddled with the name of a Parisian swimming pool courtesy his world traveler father, Santosh (Adil Hussain). Santosh is a volatile mix of dreaminess and rationalism, which also happens to be one of the book’s major organizing themes. He is simultaneously a man of science, but a naïf who builds an impractical zoo in Pondicherry, an area of India once colonized by France. It’s no wonder that Pi is also a walking contradiction, smart and resourceful, but also a devotee of all of the world’s major religious traditions. Various journeys–physical, psychological, and possibly imaginative–begin when Santosh’s zoo is no longer viable and he decides to pack up his family and all of the animals for a new start in Canada. Disaster at sea strands Pi on a lifeboat with a wounded zebra, an orangutan, a snarling hyena, and–as we suddenly discover–a carnivorous Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. (The odd name is a joke involving an invoice error.) First the hyena dispatches the zebra and then, to Pi’s great sadness, the female orangutan; Richard Parker makes quick work of all three of them. For the next 227 days Pi must try to avoid becoming Richard Parker’s lunch. Will they bond, or will the law of the jungle prevail?

In the novel–and pretty much just a tack-on in the movie–it’s not at all clear if the scenario as Pi relates it occurred, or if it’s a projection of his imagination. Or, it maybe something far more sinister happened in the lifeboat. Maybe he is the tiger, the hyena the ship’s cook, the zebra a sailor, and the orangutan his mother. Did Pi drift to Mexico fortified by cannibalism? This is tricky stuff, so how does one film it? Answer: One doesn’t. (Or shouldn’t.)

Fairness demands that I frame my critique with the admission that I have never been an Ang Lee fan. Much like Santosh, Lee has a fascination with Western culture–classics such as Sense and Sensibility (1995), exposés of bourgeois life (Ice Storm, 1997), tributes to pop culture (Hulk, 2003), and interpretations of history (the Civil war era Ride with the Devil, 1999). Lee is frequently mawkish, as he was in the vastly overrated Brokeback Mountain (2005), or completely off the mark, as he was in Taking Woodstock (2009), which is one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. He is also prone to trying to out-Hollywood Hollywood, a big problem in Life of Pi.

Because the story is unorthodox and “truth” exists (or doesn’t) on several levels, Lee has to find a way to structure the narrative. He resorts to one of movie-making’s biggest clichés: having an older protagonist relate his tale to another through flashbacks. This works in fiction because we are privy to inner thoughts; on the screen, however, such a technique is ham-handed and dull. Second, Lee needed to truncate the tale; hence he emphasizes only the tiger-on-the-boat dilemma because it is the most visually interesting part. (And, one suspects, literally the more “palatable” of the competing story arcs.)

But is that narrative believable? As a literal tale, it stretches credulity and strays toward magical realism. Movies are good with total fantasy worlds, but the liminal space that is magical realism is notoriously hard to do well; only a handful have been successful (Pan’s Labyrinth, Beasts of the Southern Wild) and this isn’t one of them. What Lee opts to do is less forgivable than mucking up a hard-to-film book–he plays Life of Pi for its cheap theatrics and milks it commercially. Instead of the complex and conflicted emotions of the novel, Lee bathes Pi is the thrill-a-moment manipulation of slasher films that make viewers gasp when danger suddenly leaps forth from the shadows. And here’s the worst part: Life of Pi has been aggressively marketed for its 3D version for which moviegoers pay an inflated price. Forget the story, the inner machinations of Pi’s mind, or any potentially profound metaphors; Lee uses the story for the mercenary purpose of setting up the next gasp-inducing special effect. (Need I tell you that sudden tiger appearances factor heavily into this equation? Hear me roar!) This is cheap filmmaking at its most expensive–all manner of technical wizardry that is, ultimately, as broad as the Pacific and as thin as a tiger’s whisker.

2D or 3D? How about ND, as on “no dice?” Life of Pi is a dish best left untouched on the plate, which is what I intend to do with future projects from this poseur director.
--Rob Weir

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