NOVEMBER 25, 2012
Ang Lee's pseudo-theological Life of Pi
proves that God is not in the pixels.
By Mark Jenkins
THE STORY OF PI, an Indian teenager who survives a shipwreck and much more, "will make you believe in God," explains the teller of the tale, who happens to be the grown-up version of the title character. There is quite a lot of God talk in Life of Pi, Taiwanese-American director Ang Lee's adaptation of French-Canadian author Yann Martel's novel. But this CGI-heavy fable is unlikely to sway viewers toward whatever vague creed is held by the mild-mannered adult Pi (Irrfan Khan).
As a veteran nonbeliever in both God and Hollywood sanctimony, I wasn't surprised that The Life of Pi failed to convert me. What did bewilder me was that, by the time the film ended, I had forgotten that it had even promised to do so. The movie's conceit evaporates so quickly that it's already vanished by the time Pi delivers his final zinger, which could hardly have less zing.
If Life of Pi is actually about anything at all, which is arguable, its subject is storytelling: the yarns we tell ourselves in order to make the horrible understandable, or at least tolerable. Aside from just a few minutes, however, the film is not remotely horrible. It makes starvation, loneliness, and terror weirdly picturesque.
The narrative divides into three unequal parts. In the first, the prepubescent Pi (Ayush Tandon) lives an enthralled life in Pondicherry, a former French colony on India's southwestern coast. Then comes the shipwreck of the teenage Pi (Suraj Sharma), his family, and some of their menagerie, which leads to a briefly lurid aftermath cribbed from When Animals Attack!-style carnivore-porn. Finally, and lengthily, is the black-light section, when boy and tiger float through a luminous ocean that's often indistinguishable from the glittering heavens. It's Pi in the sky, with diamonds.
Like last year's Hugo, Life of Pi submits to the pointless 3D vogue while pretending to uplift it. The images are skillfully animated, but annoyingly prettified — although they're not as absurdly cute as the backstory. Indeed, the purpose of the most violent images is to cut the tale's overall sweetness, as if brutality + enchantment somehow = truth.
The movie's near-toxic adorability is first revealed along with Pi's real name: Piscine Molitor Patel, the first two-thirds derived from his uncle's favorite swimming pool in Paris. (That city, of course, is the site of Amelie, a pastel-hued precursor to Life of Pi.) The family runs a zoo, and Pi soon becomes acquainted with a creature whose name is just as unlikely: a tiger called Richard Parker. Pi's acceptance of this moniker — and his refusal to abbreviate it, even under extreme duress — is typical of the movie's condescending characterization of Indians. They are spiritual people, but also childishly impressed by foreign names and phrases, which they parrot in sing-songy accents. Pi is just too earnest to call the tiger "Rick."
As a boy, Pi embraces his mother's Hinduism, which his rationalist father disdains. But then he also becomes a Christian and a Muslim, with an interest in Kabbalah as well. (No Buddhism? Well, Hindus consider Buddha an avatar of Vishnu, so that's already covered.) Countenancing multiple gods is part of Hinduism, so Pi's approach would be less strange to persons from that tradition than those reared in one of the three quarrelsome desert monotheisms. But the movie presents Pi's polyglot spirituality as utterly unspiritual. He's just a kid who would like Taylor Swift as much as Cannibal Corpse, or wear a Chelsea jersey with an Arsenal hat. A collector, not a seeker.
In this, Pi resembles Lee, who's built a career from other people's ideas and styles, none of which seem to be more important to him than any other. After his first few movies, which were rooted in his own experience in Taiwan or as an immigrant in the U.S., the director turned to upscale genre work and glossy pastiches. He's known for big-screen sitcoms (Sense and Sensibility, Taking Woodstock), tragedies without any emotional weight (The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain), and homages that are barely distinguishable from ripoffs (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which is modeled on King Hu; Lust, Caution, which is Hou Hsiao-hsien for dummies). He even made a movie based on a Marvel comic, Hulk, and treated it as an exercise in art direction.
Lee keeps up with the latest technology, and Life of Pi is a CGI showcase. If the cosmic sea and sky stuff is too pretty, the animal textures and movements are impressively convincing. After the shipwreck, Pi makes it to a lifeboat, on which he's joined by four mammals. A brief but harrowing showdown leaves only Pi and Rick, who drift together at sea for months, if not longer. Since Pi spins the tale in the movie's framing sequences, we know the boy survived. Rick's survival is not guaranteed, although the tiger is too iconic to simply drown or starve to death.
The movie, scripted by David Magee, contains many off notes, some surely retained from the novel. Patel is not a south Indian name, and the supposedly Japanese instruction manual Pi that finds in the lifeboat appears to be in Chinese. But the big problem is that the movie works neither as a realistic story or a symbolic fable. It's not about how to survive for months in a lifeboat with a hungry tiger, which simply can't be done. And since the story is all surface and no depth, it doesn't lend itself to either philosophical or theological interpretation. Life of Pi is not a journey. It's just a gush of CGI postcards from a trip some wide-eyed fabulist pretended to take.