Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
December 2012

Life of Pi

Big thoughts, small thinking

Ang Lee's brilliant filmmaking can't salvage the faulty, simple reasoning at the heart of 'Life of Pi'

Life of Pi
20th Century Fox
Director: Ang Lee
Screenplay: David Magee, based on the novel by Yann Martel
Starring: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Adil Hussain, Tabu, Gerard Depardieu and Rafe Spall
Rated PG / 2 hours, 7 minutes
Opened November 21, 2012
(out of four)

Life of Pi is a very clever ruse indeed. The majesty of director Ang Lee's visuals and his mastery of the film's various setpieces are so enthralling, they distract us from the severely problematic screenplay. To the extent that I'm not sure if I should just allow myself to be swept away by the film's raw power, or get angry at its labored and stilted attempt to make (non)sense of its fantastical narrative.

Because the main narrative is inseparable from the framing device that surrounds it, it's impossible for me to simply write off the glaring flaws as mere frivolities compared to the great spectacle within that device's constraints. Ultimately, the adventure story at the film's center is reliant on what the frame story is saying about it (for reasons that will become especially clear in the last 10 minutes), and on how Lee and screenwriter David Magee contextualize and theologize it.

Having not read the popular novel upon which the film is based, I can't say how (or whether) author Yann Martel handled the reconciliation of fact and fiction, of truth and reality. The written word and a visual form like cinema operate in such different ways that, even if Magee's script is faithful to its source, I can imagine the overall effect being much different. In any case, I can't make any comparison. What I can say is that the film's attempt to express its ideas, both about the meaning of the story and the larger issues outside it (faith, God, reason, etc.), is misguided at best, disastrous at worst.

One of my early hyperbolic reactions to Life of Pi was that it was both good enough to earn Lee consideration for Best Director, and bad enough to earn Magee consideration for Worst Screenplay. But no, of course it's not that simple. Lee does some great work - his painterly visuals are awe-inspiring - but he still allows the frame story to derail his narrative far too often. And he still thought that simplistic ending was a good idea. (We'll get to that.)

The movie centers around Pi (at various ages, but played primarily by Suraj Sharma as a young man), who has spent most of his life on something of a spiritual quest. This journey begins during childhood and reaches its apex when disaster strikes and he finds himself marooned in the middle of the ocean with nothing but a Bengal tiger as company. Pi and his family are traveling on a freighter - moving from India, where Pi has been raised at the family-owned zoo, to Canada - when a terrible storm hits one night, upending the ship and everyone (human and otherwise) on it. (This sequence in particular is a spectacular piece of large-scale filmmaking.)

Pi is one of the few survivors, making it safely into a lifeboat by sheer happenstance. He is initially joined on the lifeboat by four animals - a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena and a tiger - but that number eventually just gets whittled down to one. The tiger, naturally.

And so it goes that Pi and the tiger - named Richard Parker due to a clerical error - are forced to coexist out in the middle of the ocean, with only the boat's emergency supplies and Pi's rudimentary fishing skills as means for survival.

To be clear, this isn't a suspense story. In fact, the story is being told by Pi himself. An older version (played by Irrfan Khan) - now in his 40s, living in Canada - is telling his tale to a struggling writer (Rafe Spall), who's thinking about turning it into a book. The framing structure is unwieldy and awkward for the first half-hour or so, constantly intruding on the central story in ways that are generally unnecessary. Not to mention the cheesy way Lee chooses to edit some of the transitions together - namely the cut-out foreground figures in front of dissolving backgrounds, a technique seemingly used only to artificially utilize 3D in an obvious way (note: I saw the film in 2D).

Anyway, the frame story and its accompanying narration are there to guide us through the various stages of young Pi's journey - often didactically, always simplistically - as he confronts nature and his own mortality en route to self-discovery. But really, the structural device's most important function comes during the controversial ending, around which I'll tiptoe as delicately as possible. Pi's revelation - if you want to call it that - at the end of his story touches on the larger points Life of Pi is trying to make about belief, truth, religion, gods, what have you.

The first problem (among many) is that Lee and Magee seem to miscalculate the breadth of the lost-at-sea storyline. They never convince us it is anything more than Cast Away in the ocean. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, but the film's conclusion makes it clear we're meant to consider the whole amazing story in a different context. Sorry, but the story itself doesn't justify the conceit. Making things more troubling is the fact that we can only take the adult version of Pi at face value, so what we can assume the film was getting at with the ending actually comes across as something very different - something borderline absurd, actually.

It's here where I wondered how the book handled this - whether it finessed things in such a way that allowed for the kind of ambiguity and/or complexity that may have salvaged the overall message. Here, there is no ambiguity - only blatant symbolism. There is a specific design to Life of Pi, but that design is undone by its all-too-direct approach to abstract ideas.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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