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Life of Pi (2012)

Tuesdays with Tandoori

As we get older and our days become routinized in the service of survival (or prosperity for the lucky few), finding a work of art that speaks deeply to us can be a rare and magical experience. For me, those revelations often happen at the movies--some of my favorites being films that I'd had little interest in seeing. There are few greater highs in life than floating absent-mindedly out of a theatre with a head full of bold, new ways to look at the world.

Things don't always work out that way, though. Ignoring my instincts can also set me directly in the path of a painfully laborious clunker like Ang Lee's Life of Pi. Somewhere around the hour mark of this story about a boy adrift at sea with a Bengal tiger, I, too, wanted nothing more than to scream at God and go home.

The film stars Irrfan Khan as Pi Patel, an Indian man living in Canada. One day, he's visited by a blocked writer named, um, Writer (Rafe Spall), who'd heard about a life-defining adventure that Pi experienced as a teenager. Eager for any kind of mental stimulation following the abandonment of his second novel, Writer listens anxiously as Pi begins his fantastical tale.

The first twenty minutes of Life of Pi could be broken off into a (bad) short film called Forrest Gupta. As a boy, Pi doesn't display Tom Hanks levels of dimwittedness, but his eerie obsession with finding the right religion while dodging constant ridicule from his classmates clearly makes him an oddball--and not in the endearing sense: speaking as a former childhood outcast, I wouldn't have hung around this annoying weirdo, either.

About that name...

"Pi" is short for "Piscine", the French word for "pool". Pi was named after an uncle who was determined to take a dip in every swimming pool he could find, following a birth defect that left him with an over-inflated chest (or something). We see the uncle in a flashback-within-a-flashback, and he's portrayed as a grotesque, partial-CGI creation. It's supposed to be endearing, I guess, in the same way that the infant Renesmee was meant to pass as an actual humanoid in the last Twilight movie. But the effect is off-putting, and reminded me of the worst elements of Big Fish.

"Piscine", when pronounced correctly, sounds an awful lot like "pissing". The schoolyard taunts become too much for him, so Pi decides to become the cool kid by memorizing the mathematical number pi and writing it triumphantly across several chalk boards. This moment, in conjunction with the He-Man-action-figure uncle, forced me completely out of the movie--and denied me re-entry for the next ninety-plus minutes.

Allow me to explain. When Pi takes to the chalkboard, the rest of the kids in his class cheer him on, reciting the impossibly long string of numbers as he goes. His teachers look on in amazement, comparing each written character to the master sequence in a large book.

Question: How did all those kids know that Pi was writing the proper numbers?

Follow-up question: How did the teachers not lose their place when looking from the book to the board and back again?

Bonus question: If the kids knew the number pi well enough to play along, why the hell were they so impressed that the nerdy kid could write it on the board?

The answer to all of these, of course, is that Life of Pi is a fantasy film. As such, the audience doesn't have to rely on anything they're told to be true--unless they decide that something rings true enough for them to invest in. These kinds of movies are extremely hard to pull off. How do you convince people to sit still for two hours after indirectly informing them that the life-threatening peril the characters are about to face is probably not even real (in the context of the story)?

The short answer, for me, is "you can't". At least, Ang Lee can't--which is a big disappointment. Though he and screenwriter David Magee (adapting Yann Martel's novel) do their best to crowd out their flimsy story and world-philosophy melange with great visuals, the movie is dead in the water.

Which brings me to the boat wreck. A few years after Pi conquers pi, his father (Adil Hussain) decides to pack up the family zoo and move to Canada. They secure passage on a Japanese freighter, which crosses (or tries to cross) the Mariana Trench during an epic storm. Pi (Suraj Sharma), now a teenager, wakes up in the middle of the night to dance in the rain on the deck of the ship. I suppose Lee was aiming for innocent playfulness here, but I just wanted to yell at the screen, "Get back inside, stupid!" I shouldn't have been as worried, I guess, since it became clear quite quickly that Pi's other gift--besides astounding memorization--is the ability to defy gravity and crashing waves.

Let me put this out there: if you can watch Life of Pi and suspend disbelief enough to accept Pi's not getting drowned/washed out to sea/crushed by the tsunami that sinks his ship--while simultaneously boarding a swaying life boat with a tiger, a zebra, a hyena, and, eventually, an orangutan--then please never bring up the flaws in a Michael Bay blockbuster again. You'd need four thousand hot air balloons to suspend disbelief to the degree that this movie requires; coincidentally, that's about how many times Pi miraculously avoids death while half-gripping his boat during storms that make Hurricane Sandy look like a light drizzle.

The bulk of the film sees Pi stranded on this boat with a decent supply of rations, a survival manual, and that big-ass tiger. They drift, fight, catch fish, and slowly begin the process of dying. Pi creates a makeshift secondary raft out of some oars and life jackets to give his reluctant companion some space--which he deserves, after having eaten the other animals onboard. Lee evokes the boredom and uncertainty of Pi's journey a bit too effectively. At no point did I care about this character, but I consider my struggle to not check my phone for the time an equally epic spiritual conquest.

The film's one interesting sequence takes place on an island that eats people. It's full of meerkats, acid water, and fruits with human teeth lodged inside. Unfortunately, Pi and the tiger only stay there for a night before heading back to sea.

Let's skip to the part where Pi gets rescued and interviewed by two insurance adjusters from the Japanese freighter company. In an interrogation scene reminiscent of the beginning of Aliens and the end of The Usual Suspects, Pi recounts his story to a doubtful audience. He then launches into an alternate version, in which he'd engaged in a life-and-death battle with the ship's racist cook (Gerard Depardieu, whose whopping three minutes of screen time somehow warranted opening-credits billing), a sailor (Jian-wei Huang), and Pi's mother (Tabu).

A sure sign of a lame movie is when the main character spells out the fact that all of the animals in the story were actually metaphors for other characters. Hey, Ang, leave the "Ain't I a Genius" commentary to critics and film studies teachers. In fairness, I'd forgotten about most of the other animals and characters by that point, seeing as they'd been dead for over an hour. The only purpose of this "big reveal" is to reinforce my earlier point that the events on the life boat don't have to make sense because they never happened. Life of Pi is a lie, presented as a vague, consciousness-expanding spiritual metaphor.

The problem with vague, consciousness-expanding spiritual metaphors, particularly in movies that don't stake out a clear stance one way or the other, is that they're often presented as take-it-or-leave-it propositions. The adult Pi leaves Writer with a vague sense of which version of his story is true, which only makes for a shoddy attempt to mask horror with whimsy. Worse yet, Writer's faith in God and himself are reaffirmed at the end, for no other reason than the fact that Pi told him these things would happen by virtue of listening to his story.

I'm reminded of the last time I attended church (for a function not related to funerals or baptisms). Fourteen years ago, our pastor promised a revelatory Easter Sunday sermon that would prove beyond any dout that Jesus not only existed, but also rose from the dead three days after being crucified and tossed in a cave. The preacher was known for his scholarly research into such matters, and I was fully ready to find a kernel of science that I could grab onto in this convoluted mythology of talking snakes and people who lived for hundreds of years at the dawn of a seven-day Earth.

The pastor's "irrefutable evidence" was that God Himself had inspired the Gospel writers to tell the truth about His son, and that's all the proof anyone should need--which is roughly equivalent to saying that George Lucas is the leading historical authority on a space war that happened a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. 

I can't recommend Life of Pi. Despite its occasional visual invention and great performances by all the actors who play Pi, there's simply no point to Lee's venture. You'd be much better served by watching Cloud Atlas or reading Ishmael or The Third Eye, books with similar themes and a lot less bullshit (don't let the former's talking gorilla fool you). Americans may be drawn to the film's unusual locations, cast, and themes, but "exotic" doesn't automatically equal "deep". This is definitely a case of "least meets West".