Director Ang Lee’s adaptation of author Yann Martel’s Man Booker Prize-winning “Life of Pi” feels almost like two films sandwiched into one. In the core, you have the succulent special-effects-driven story of a young Indian survivor of a shipwreck who’s adrift in a lifeboat with a man-eating Bengal tiger. Yet wrapped around that is a deeply fried New Age-y/spiritual parable about “finding God.”
The first, surprisingly enough, boasts special effects done so well that you entirely buy the unlikely story on offer — that it’s a living, breathing tiger, not a collection of pixels, prowling about that boat — while the second is handled so clumsily and is so po-faced that it completely fails to convince, a problem possibly inherent to Martel’s source material.
Regular readers of this column will know by now that I like “magic realism” about as much as a lap dancer who calls asking for a date; no matter how good the proposition sounds, you know you’re being had, and “Life of Pi” will certainly have you and then some.
The film’s narrator is one Piscine “Pi” Patel, a middle-aged Canadian scholar (Irrfan Khan) who is being visited by an annoyingly meek writer (Rafe Spall) who has come to hear from Pi “a story that will make you believe in God.” Like most such stories, it turns out to be a steaming heap of bull hockey.
The film moves into flashbacks (with Gautam Belur, Ayush Tandon and Suraj Sharma playing Pi at various ages) and we learn of Pi’s childhood in Pondicherry, India, where his father kept a zoo; the family’s decision to move — menagerie and all — to Canada; and the subsequent shipwreck that leaves him stranded in that lifeboat with a tiger called Richard Parker, a bad-tempered hyena and a mopey orangutan.
As with all magic realism, “Life of Pi” piles on the quirky and fantastical like so much curry-rice on a sumo yokozuna‘s buffet plate. In most films, being shipwrecked with a tiger for 227 days would be enough suspension of disbelief to ask of an audience. In “Life of Pi,” that’s just the main course: Our hero Pi is named after a Parisian swimming pool, gets his nickname by memorizing the mathematical figure out to the zillionth decimal, and precociously practices three religions (Hinduism, Christianity and Islam) as a child.
Did I mention the sentient island carpeted in meerkats? That’s the cake-taker, though for a film concerned with faith and belief, it seems to be deliberately thumbing its nose at those of us who won’t make the leap into the magical — as a final scene reveals, with Pi making up a more “believable” cover story for some (Japanese) insurance agents who won’t believe his tiger-in-the-boat story.
Lee and his visual-effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer have created some glorious imagery here, with whales bursting out of phosphorescent night seas and an ocean surface as reflective as a mirror. The 3-D is mostly used with restraint, but there are a few tiger-in-your-face moments, and a flurry of flying fish that engulfs the boat is a truly amazing.
The God stuff gets old quickly, though, with all too many scenes of Pi, arms outstretched, turning to the sky and shouting, “I am your vessel,” or “I see God!” The implication is that it’s faith that gets Pi through his ordeal, but faith in what? Believing in three religions simultaneously is, as Pi’s rational father (Adil Hussain) tells him, “the same as believing in nothing at all.” This is dished up as some sort of feel-good multicultural embrace of all spirituality, but really, monotheism and polytheism are doctrinally exclusive. “Life of Pi,” however, is a movie aggressively attacking the sort of noble doubt that fuels agnosticism.
Author Martel’s book sold over 7 million copies, but he was soon caught up in a plagiarism scandal, accused of having lifted the story’s premise from Brazilian author Moacyr Scliar. After admitting he may have read a review of Scliar’s book by John Updike in the New York Times Book Review, Martel was presented with evidence that no such review existed, to which he still insisted he had never read Scliar’s book, saying, “I didn’t really want to read it. Why put up with a brilliant premise ruined by a lesser writer?” Now there’s the humility and generosity of a man who really understands “spirituality” enough to be teaching the rest of us about it.