A standard Zen 101 question is “why does the bird fly?” If your answer is “because that is the way for him…it’s his gift, his burden, his calling, his joy…the bird flies because he must,” you’ll probably have a place in your heart for Ang Lee‘s Life Of Pi. But if your reply is “what’s he gonna do, ride a Harley Davidson?,” then you might have issues with this 11.21 20th Century Fox release, which will have its world premiere tonight at the New York Film Festival.
Just as Anthony Minghella‘s Cold Mountain was described by the smart-asses as “a movie about a man walking through the woods” and Martin Scorsese‘s The Age of Innocence was called “a movie about cufflinks,” Life of Pi — a constantly eye-filling adaptation of Yann Martel’s 2001 novel — is going to be called “a film about floating in a lifeboat for months with a Bengal tiger.” By the primitives, I mean. It’s a spiritual journey flick, of course, but some people have no patience for that stuff. Thing is, I have plenty of patience for meditative musings and I still thought Life of Pi was kind of a languid, inconclusive, space-casey thing…although quite gorgeous on a compositional, frame-by-frame level.
I think that Life of Pi is going to be regarded as a major visual feast by the visual-delight-for-the-sake-of-visual-delight crowd — the pure cinema geeks — and as a visually enthralling curiosity by the vast majority of the viewing public, as a non-starter by a significant portion of the family audience (i.e., as a bore by kids and their legendary short-attention spans) and as a respectable also-ran in the Best Picture contest.
No one will dismiss or disrespect it. It is a reasonably sturdy work of art. It is worth seeing. It is food for thought. It might even kick in with religious types of all shapes and colors. But there’s no way it gets into the Best Picture game. Sorry.
That’s because it doesn’t tell much of a campfire story and it doesn’t really tie together, not for me anyway, and I’m saying this as one who experienced satori as a lad in my early 20s after taking LSD and reading the Bhagavad Gita, and therefore one who will always welcome notions of the mystical and the concept of clear light. But as God and Vishnu and Sri Krishna are my witness, I found it to be a mild little parable about the brutal, bestial nature of life and the relentless rough and tumble, and how we have to a choice to live in this world and be governed by these brutal terms or to see beyond these terms and achieve some level of transcendence — and that’s fine.
I also took to heart the lesson about how it sure sharpens your survival game if you have a hungry Bengal tiger to feed while you’re floating across the Pacific ocean. That’s true. I myself have been sharpened by this and that tiger on my own path.
But I found little or nothing mystical (or even mystically allusive or intriguing) in Life of Pi. What I found was heaps and mounds and waves of delirious CG eye candy in service of a very slow-moving tale children’s tale — honestly, this is a Sunday morning Clutch Cargo cartoon writ large and flamboyant and visually state-of-the-art — with a sluggish middle section on the high seas.
I’m not going to recount the story beat for beat (look it up) but 17 year-old Suraj Sharma plays young “Pi” Patel, and Irrfan Khan plays the adult Pi who tells his story to an author, played by Rafe Spall (and previously played by Tobey Maguire before Lee decided his performance wasn’t working).
The opening in the zoo (even the animals in this section look CG-ish) to Khan’s chat with Spall to Sharma sampling various faiths and religions as a kid to the sinking of the cargo ship takes…what, about 35 or 40 minutes? Then we have what seems like a full hour of struggling to survive on the boat and raft. And then a final 20 minutes of so talking to Spall again (who says the story is “a lot to take in”) and to the Japanese investigators and their surprising decision to choose a metaphorical story over a literal-sounding one.
Life of Pi is constantly inventive and diverting and obviously eye-filling, but there is next to nothing revelatory in the tale except that we all are given a choice to choose between a tale of the tiger and the hyena and the zebra and the open seas, or a tale about hunger and thirst and desperation and murder on the high seas, and that most of us tend to prefer a more literal and less metaphorical version of things.
I’m a tiger guy myself, but I appreciate the point of view of the meat-and-potatoes crowd who will snort and say, “Aww, horseshit…tell us what really happened!” I could write a review of Life of Pi by Joe Pesci‘s character in Goodfellas and/or one of Denis Leary‘s pals in the Rescue Me firehouse, and I could make it funny. But I don’t want to be snide or disrespectful. But you know what one of those guys would say.
In a letter directly to Martel, Barack Obama described his book as “an elegant proof of God, and of the power of storytelling.” I’m going to vote for Barack Obama, but if he says the same thing about the film I would challenge him to explain in detail precisely where the proof of God is.
What this movie delivers without question is proof of devotion to and obsession with CG visuals. If there is “proof of God” in Life of Pi, there is also proof of God in Happy Feet, Jurassic Park, Come Back Little Sheba, Who’ll Stop The Rain, T2, Hatari!, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Elmer Gantry, The Rains of Ranchipur, Titanic, The Silver Linings Playbook, Siddhartha, Dude, Where’s My Car?, From Here to Eternity, Stanley Kramer‘s Judgment at Nuremberg and Cecil B. Demille‘s The Greatest Show on Earth.
In its most primitive and basic form, Life of Pi is magical realism by way of what can almost be described as a CG cartoon — none of it feels “real” except for the interview portions and the portions showing Sharma/Khan as a young kid. I understand that the “unreality” of most of the film is deliberate, of course — a visual correlative to an imagination and a mindset of a man who is enthralled by and determined to find the mystical and exceptional in his processing of life. But we’re still left with the fact that the majority of the movie doesn’t look “real”, and by that I mean less real than Avatar.
Life of Pi is “painted” up the wazoo, and I don’t care if there was an actual Bengal tiger who acted in certain scenes — I don’t believe it anyway. It’s all about the hard drive. It’s all about the paint and the brushstrokes and the hanging of the canvas on the art gallery wall.
To try again, Life is Pi is a parable about the savagery of life but not, by my sights, a movie that points to or articulates anything meaningful in a mystical sense. It basically says that it’s a dog-eat-dog, hyena-eats-zebra, tiger-eats-hyena and carnivorous-plant-island world out there….survival-of-the-fittest, tooth-and-claw, watch your back and be resourceful. But (I’m repeating myself) it sure sharpens your game if you have a hungry Bengal tiger to feed, etc. Life is hard (which is entirely God’s doing) but you don’t have to think or be “hard.” If you wish to rise above instinct and raw survivalism, you can. The choice is yours. The journey is there for the taking if you want it.
I respect enormously the commitment to a precise and particular vision on Lee’s part (and that of producers Gil Netter and David Womark, and before that producer-shepherd Elizabeth Gabler and directors M. Night Shyamalan and Alfonso Cuaron), and Fox 2000 in financing it and 20th Century Fox in distributing it. This is not a movie that dives right into commercial conventionality, and into what most people (certainly what most younger people) want. These things in themselves are to be respected, particularly given the production costs and whatnot.
After Wednesday afternoon’s screening I heard a colleague talking about how she’s an atheist but she was shattered by it. Another person in her realm was very impressed by it. So I may be in the minority and that’s fine. Life of Pi deserves respect and whatever hossannahs it can get. I don’t want to stand in the way of that.
Brian Bethune of Maclean‘s once described Martel’s book as “a head-scratching combination of dense religious allegory, zoological lore and enthralling adventure tale, written with warmth and grace.” That’s pretty much what Ang Lee’s film is if you substitute “written” with “composed.” It’s fine for those who will get off on it. It’s quite the visual feast but it’s really a doodle. It’s a movie that lights or doesn’t light a match in the head of the viewer, and if you’re one of those who gets that special “something” out of it, great.
But truly great movies deliver the goods to the perceptive and the not-so-perceptive simultaneously, and that is why Life of Pi is not Best Picture material. For the not-so-perceptive, it’s an CG-driven eye-candy adventure with a slow and even draggy middle section, and a story that’s kind of interesting but also kind of “meh.” That is what 80% to 85% of viewers will think or say.
Update: In response to HE reader Mark G., the 3D is very nicely rendered. The tiger leaps out, the chunks of meat pop through, etc. I just don’t feel that much enthusiasm for 3D these days…sorry. I could have easily gone with Life of Pi being screened in 2D. That’s not a comment about the quality of the 3D work — that’s a comment about me.
Further update: Variety‘s Justin Chang, The Hollywood Reporter‘s Todd McCarthy and Indiewire‘s Anne Thompson have all posted friendlier reviews than my own. MCN’s David Poland is more on my side of the fence.