Friday, June 21, 2013

Life of Pi

2012. 127 min. PG – scary scenes, utter confusion for children and adults, where’d the hyena disappear to?
IMDB says... A young man who survives a disaster at sea is hurtled into an epic journey of adventure and discovery. While cast away, he forms an unexpected connection with another survivor: a fearsome Bengal tiger.

The 73rd Virgin says... This review contains spoilers!

I watched this twice hoping to be fair. Haven’t read the book. About 20 minutes in, while watching Irrfan Khan and his callow young listener sit on a park bench and talk about Pi’s life story, it occurred to me that I was watching a globally friendly and religiously referenceable Forrest Gump. But it’s not even that good. And I wasn’t a fan.

Young Pi is not so much a religious seeker as he is a religion taster, blithely soaking up elements from whichever of his most recent religious experience. Pi tells his life story and his unlikely story of survival to a dewy-eyed Canadian writer who has come to hear how it will make him believe in God. The Canadian writer is as young and as white as audience demographics demand.

And so begin flashbacks, and flashbacks within flashbacks, to quaintly tell or over-tell how Pi’s family comes to own a zoo in India. The script even devotes two or three minutes to explain how the Tiger got its charming name of Richard Parker and seemingly endless minutes to how Piscine became Pi. I’m sure it was charming in the book and maybe even contained symbolism, but to the non-reader it just seems like failed whimsy with very stilted dialog.

Khan is very good as the adult Pi. His steady authoritative gaze through sad eyes calls to mind (ethnic conflation alert!) Graham Greene at his best. Rafe Spall as the writer is awful. He needed ten years of whiskey and cigarettes to even come close to being a convincing writer – although the banal scripting is much to blame as well.

And it’s kinda chickenshit. The most memorable early scene involves Pi stupidly offering to feed the Tiger with his bare hands. To teach him a lesson, Pi’s father forces him to watch the Tiger feed on a live goat. But the camera cuts away at the critical moment when the entire audience could have seen the utter remorselessness of the animal, which would better prepare us to face the character later.

So you probably know the rest. While Pi’s family and the entire zoo (that makes sense) moves from India to Canada on a Japanese freighter, where Pi’s mother demands vegetarian cooking - makes as much sense as the zoo, I guess - the freighter sinks and Pi winds up on a 30-foot lifeboat along with a zebra, hyena, orangutan, and eventually the Tiger. That won’t last.

The sinking ship scene is just butt-clumsy. First Pi goes up on deck to enjoy the storm, then goes back down to the ship’s hold to find his family, then somehow winds up back on deck. Twice during storms Pi goes crazy and behaves irrationally in as irritating a manner as possible. Why? I’m sure it’s in the book. It ain’t here.

Our first clue that we may be caught in the dread drear realm of magical realism is that the boat does not proceed to fill up with livestock shit. And director Ang Lee gives himself permission to play “where’s the Tiger” with the audience. Later, the boat will fill up with flying fish which the Tiger will finish off in a matter of minutes, and then once again will not fill the boat with Tiger shit. In magical realism world, Tigers bail their own shit.

Yeah, I know. These are symbols.

Late in the movie Pi will be forced to acknowledge that this horror-stricken child’s fantasy involving animals is actually the story of four people on the life boat. And we have to decide which story we prefer to believe.

In a neck-snappingly clumsy bit of scripting, Pi is forced to make this acknowledgement to Japanese insurance adjusters who want to know how the ship sank. Which has nothing whatsoever to do with Pi’s story. I know some insurance adjusters. They don’t ask the 12-year-old how the cat survived the house fire when they want to know why the house burned down.

As a courtesy to the movie, I went to Spark Notes to get clear.

"by davidtoc, December 30, 2012
171 out of 187 people found this helpful
Quick summary:
Pi's lifeboat = faith
Island = Religion
Sea and Sun = harsh realities of real life, scrutinizing your faith
Trees = clergy/priests/rabbis/imams, etc.
Meerkats = followers of religion
The overall message of the chapter is that although religion (organized faith) can aid us and stabilize us and nourish us spiritually in the short term, it is not a viable long-term answer to our spiritual questions, and will ultimately kill us mentally and spiritually."
Thanks davidtoc - saved me a lot of work. Oh, and the cook is the hyena. Any savvy movie watcher will know that one does not introduce Gerard Depardieu as a gross, racist (non-vegetarian) ship’s cook only to have him drown five minutes later in the story. And you probably know who the Tiger is.

So over the next hour Pi sits on the boat, sits on a life raft attached to the boat, reads a book, improves the life raft, sits on the boat, sits on the life raft, reaches some sort of accommodation with the Tiger, survives a storm, and sits on the boat. It is all beautifully filmed of course. I don’t doubt that any director with a couple Oscar’s under his belt and a few bajillion dollars and a good cinematographer could make beautiful scenes involving storms, open sea, sinking ships, mangrove islands, fluorescent plankton, etc. It’s every bit as pretty and incisive and religiously uplifting as a Thomas Kinkade (painter of light!!) painting.

And people make fun of “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” series as religious hokum for children. What’s that make this?

Wanna know how to get the whole story done in 24 lines? Let William Blake do it. My father was taught this poem in public high school in the 30s. I was NOT taught it in Catholic school in the 60s. Think about that.

Now we need bloated, pretentious movies to ponder the same imponderables. "Did He who made the lamb make thee?"

Obviously, I’m not the first person to think of this. But… let her rip.

TIGER, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder and what art
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand and what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And water'd heaven with their tears,
Did He smile His work to see?
Did He who made the lamb make thee?

Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?


  1. You watched it twice? Dude you should get some kind of film reviewer medal. Your review hits all the weak spots, great job.

  2. Thanks. I have (had) friends who really liked it. I didn't wanna make them mad until I was sure.