Sunday, January 20, 2013

Life of Pi

Ang Lee’s Life of Pi received 11 Oscar nominations this year, and seeing the film with its potential awards haul in mind serves as a reminder that even in a post-Avatar age it is still possible to be blinded by craft. The 3D filmmaking and digital imagery in Life of Pi are gorgeous, and if the idea of watching a 2 hour plus film about a young man and a tiger alone in a boat together on the Pacific Ocean is too much for your suspension of disbelief then let me assure you that filmmakers artistry does not interfere with story. But what of the story?

I haven’t read the Yann Martel novel upon which Life of Pi is based and so I don’t know whether or not the clumsy framing device that screenwriter David Magee sets up is his own invention. In present-day Toronto a novelist (Rafe Spall ) is interviewing a man named Pi (the great actor Irrfan Khan, a familiar face from The Darjeeling Limited and The Namesake) for reasons which aren’t immediately clear. The writer is stuck for a book idea and it seems that Pi may have a story to tell. These early scenes are clunky and more than a little forced; I’m not sure what screenwriting manual recommends that watching two men prepare lunch is a good idea for a movie’s first act. In time we learn Pi’s story and travel back to the India of his boyhood. Pi (played for most of the film by Suraj Sharma) and his brother Ravi (played by 3 different actors at different ages) are the children of a zoo owner who lives in upper middle-class comfort. Pi wins his nickname in school by being able to extend 3.14.… out to a seemingly infinite number of decimal places, and I found myself wondering if the book Pi’s math teacher has which appears to contain nothing but pi’s value really exists. Pi is a curious child who starts asking questions about God and how the world works early on, and he soon comes to embrace a kind of unified theory that his father (Adil Hussain) warns him may turn out to be meaningless.

The shipwreck that puts Pi in a boat with a tiger named Richard Parker is excitingly staged; there’s something scary and surreal about seeing the contents of the zoo (being transported to Canada for sale) fighting for space alongside the ship’s crew. The ways in which Pi and Richard Parker come to live together are exactingly detailed and the sheer menace of the tiger is a tribute to what’s possible in the realm of digital creation. If Life of Pi were merely an adventure story it would be a modest success, but everyone involved with the film seems to want it to mean something. Pi’s broad-based faith comes in handy at sea, since he needs someone to talk to and God is just about the only choice besides a giant tiger. The real meaning of Pi’s journey won’t become clear until years later of course, but by then Life of Pi has become something else. What is the value of a story, to the one who tells it and to those who hear it? That’s the question Life of Pi  is really asking but Lee doesn’t want to take the time to answer it. Life of Pi represents (so we are told) a great step forward in the use of 3D, and since every advance must be showered in Oscar glory it may be part of our conversation for a while. Yet the broad stretch for profundity on issues of faith and connectedness leach the film of its emotional power. If Life of Pi were an animal, it wouldn’t have done well on the boat.

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