Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Life of Pi: Sliced a bit too thinly

Life of Pi (2012) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: PG, for dramatic intensity and scary images; young viewers may find it much too frightening
By Derrick Bang

Lyrical novels recounted by a sole narrator are notoriously difficult to translate into movies; the work-arounds designed to impart essential information can be clumsy, and we always lose the rhythm and sweep of the author’s prose.

Although he has survived a shipwreck, Pi (Suraj Sharma) finds that he is far from safe,
because his lifeboat has been commandeered by a ferocious tiger ... whose appetite
forces the young man to construct a "raft" from stray bits of survival equipment.
Factor in a substantial religious element, as the protagonist grapples with his concept of God, and the task becomes well-nigh impossible.

Director Ang Lee and scripter David Magee therefore deserve considerable credit for the care they’ve taken with Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. While the film is far from perfect, Lee shrewdly employs all manner of cinematic ingenuity to convey this story’s blend of surreal whimsy and harsh deprivation, along with an exotic, at times supernatural atmosphere that strongly evokes portions of Slumdog Millionaire.

Claudio Miranda’s cinematography deserves considerable credit as well, in terms of adding to this saga’s aura of mystery and magic realism. You’ll be moved to awe more than once, starting with the first things we see: simple establishing shots of animals at play in a small zoo in Pondicherry, India. This montage suggests a cheerful innocence that speaks volumes, and belies events to come.

Or my favorite shot: a sharply focused glimpse of bathers relaxing in lounge chairs at the edge of the Piscine Molitor swimming pool in Paris, France. Only when a swimmer cuts across our field of vision, do we realize that we’ve been observing all these people through water: proof of the pool’s crystal clarity.

Borrowing a leaf from Martel, whose book unfolds as if it had been told to him by its subject, Magee begins this narrative by introducing us to an adult Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan), whose comfortable life in Toronto, Canada, is pleasantly interrupted by an expat American writer who — at the suggestion of a mutual acquaintance — has traveled all the way from India to meet him.

Patel, our writer is told, is a man with a story. Patel readily acknowledges this claim, adding that his saga will demonstrate proof of God’s existence. This is a tantalizing assertion, and a simple statement that could be ruined if improperly scripted or shaded. But Khan’s utter sincerity is evident in the actor’s every expression and gesture; we — and the visiting writer – can’t help being intrigued.

Their relationship thus established, Patel is free to narrate his story, which (for the most part) removes the awkwardness of the voice-over device used from this point forward. The subsequent tale therefore unfolds as a lengthy flashback.

Pi grows up as an inquisitive, precocious youth in Pondicherry, actually named Piscine after the aforementioned Parisian pool. But that name too easily lends itself to schoolyard taunts, and so — thanks to a demonstration of astonishing memory and mathematical prowess — the boy shortens his name to Pi.

He’s a voracious reader and possessed of an insatiable curiosity, particularly with respect to religion. Although raised a Hindu, he soon discovers and embraces Catholicism and, a bit later, Islam. Pi views this as a sensible method of getting closer to any and all gods; his father (Adil Hussain), however, warns that attempting to know everything is a certain path to knowing nothing well.

Pi is equally fascinated by animals, and the boy wonders about their souls. He’s particularly intrigued by the family zoo’s tiger, capriciously named Richard Parker due to a clerical error. Pi believes a connection could be forged with such a regal creature; his father insists that, given any chance at all, the tiger would simply devour him.

When Pi becomes a teenager (now played by Suraj Sharma), his father decides to move his family to Canada. (Martel’s book cites discontent with Indira Gandhi’s political behavior, but Magee’s screenplay leaves the catalyst for this decision somewhat vague.) The animals are sold to various American zoos, thus financing the trip; the family — Pi, his parents and older brother — then board the same Japanese freighter that is shipping all the critters.

We meet only one new character on board this vessel: the loutish ship’s cook (Gérard Depardieu), an arrogant, unpleasant man with no sympathy for Pi’s family’s vegetarian diet.

Then, crisis: a savage storm that swamps the ship and sends passengers and animals into blind panic. This sequence is grimly realistic: terribly difficult to watch, and certain to leave lingering nightmares. Although Lee avoids gratuitous images of death, the implications are horrific.

Pi winds up in a lifeboat with a few stray zoo animals. To the boy’s horror, the swimming “man” he works hard to save turns out to be the tiger, Richard Parker; a huge wave sweeps the giant cat into the boat.

Time ... passes. Hunger and alpha dominance exact an unsurprising toll.

From this point forward, Pi’s saga becomes one of endurance and survival, as days become weeks and then months. The tiger’s presence serves the same purpose as Tom Hanks’ beach ball, in Cast Away: a companion that keeps the boy wary, grounded and sane. He must become resourceful, for if he doesn’t keep Richard Parker fed somehow, the tiger will eat him.

This isn’t an easy decision, because Pi grieves at the very notion of killing a living creature — even a fish — in order to stay alive himself.

Magee and Lee do reasonably well, holding our interest despite the weary, grinding sameness of needing to assuage hunger and thirst. The lifeboat sheds its secrets slowly, as Pi discovers various compartments; these moments are parceled out carefully, tantalizing us with the hope that each fresh discovery might translate into another few days of survival.

The ocean itself offers its own magic, whether the late-night phosphorescence that reveals thousands of small jellyfish, or an onslaught of flying fish that arrives at a fortuitous moment.

Regardless of the need to stay alert, the boy’s mind eventually wanders, which in Martel’s novel leads to various flights of fancy and questions regarding God’s plans and actions. Indeed, we reach a point where we have to question whether Pi remains a reliable narrator, and the film’s excursions into the weirdly wonderful emphasize this doubt.

Heck, Lee even tosses in an LSD-esque “water hallucination” that looks very much like the famed “stargate sequence” in 2001: A Space Odyssey (or the similar vision quest montage in the more recent Tree of Life).

It’s difficult to gauge the degree to which one’s attention may wander as the story’s grim second act segues to its much stranger, slower final chapter; I also doubt the film will be as successful at helping viewers “find God,” as the book has been with its readers.

Granted, we cannot help being impressed and amazed — indeed, positively astonished — by the thoroughly convincing depiction of this tiny boat and its two inhabitants; the frequently angry tiger is absolutely, utterly real, while Sharma’s frenzied, often panicked behavior feels equally authentic.

Lee and editor Tim Squyres maintain an impressive level of tension; no matter how many times the tiger lunges toward this vulnerable boy, we jump at each new assault.

Oddly, though, I was more emotionally involved with this story each time Magee’s script briefly returned to the present, as the adult Pi emphasizes a point to his rapt listener. Khan — perhaps remembered from Slumdog Millionaire and this summer’s Amazing Spider Man — brings dignity and gravitas to every word; I honestly think I’d rather watch him, as he tells the entire story, rather than see it depicted on screen.

Famed Indian actress Tabu is memorable as Pi’s wise, gentle and tolerant mother; Shravanthi Sainath makes the most of her all-too-brief scenes as the girl who attracts Pi’s eye, back in Pondicherry. Sharma, a first-time actor, shoulder’s the tiger’s share of this story’s dramatic weight, and Lee coaxes a fine, well-layered performance from this young man.

The intriguing reveal at story’s end notwithstanding, though, I found Life of Pi to be disappointing and anticlimactic. The adult Pi’s signature reflection — “And so it goes with God” — simply doesn’t have the dramatic heft Lee and Magee obviously intended. (Perhaps tellingly, Magee elicited far more emotional oomph with his scripts for the wholly grounded Finding Neverland and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.)

But the strength of Lee’s vision here, as he does his best to convey the awe present in Martel’s book, cannot be denied. This cinematic Life of Pi may not be wholly satisfying, but it’s a helluva head trip.

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