My problem with Life of Pi is simple.
It’s a piece of high art, tethered to earth in the desire to be accessible and PG-safe. It’s also an earthly big studio effects show, unable to entertain wildly enough to overcome the simplicity of the story as it rolls out and the unavoidable stench of death that hangs over the tale.
I sat in the film, completely open to all of the elements of the film. Ang Lee, check. Irrfan Khan, check. Fantastical journey story, check. Spiritual enlightenment, check. One man confronts his soul, check. The elements had me at, “Hello.”
But it never came together for me. Truly not for a minute.
The story, as offered from the first frames, is of a middle aged man telling his story to a reporter who has been sent to hear a great tale of a life’s journey. The movie is almost all a flashback, essentially. He tells the reporter the story of his youth, taking about 30 minutes before going on the boat journey that leads to the teen boy on the boat in the ocean that you’ve seen in all the ads.
I’m going to tell you one story that occurs in the first act that, for me, explains why this movie simply doesn’t work. I don’t think is a spoiler, but if you are especially sensitive to any story details, don’t read the next three paragraphs…
The family owns a zoo. And the pre-teen Pi is experimenting, wanting to see the tiger eat raw meat close up… to feed the tiger, really. When his father finds out, he is enraged about the lack of respect the boy is showing a wild – albeit caged – creature. And to show him the brutality of nature, he feeds the tiger a live goat… live and tied outside of the cage… until the tiger pulls it through the slits of the gate and carries it away.
And here is my problem with this film. The father, over the mother’s protests, is going to make the boy face this brutality… this reality. And what does the film do? It cuts away. Goat on the outside of the cage frightened, tiger coming for it, reaction shot of the family, tiger, half way down the hallway, dragging the goat, but without any blood or such ugliness.
Thanks for sparing us the lesson. But why would I care about the lesson the boy is having if I am not having a lesson that is emotionally as weighty? Movies have cut away from violence forever, but this is not Bambi. It’s not like we have an emotional stake in that goat. It’s not the boy’s personal pet. It’s just a goat that was going to be be lunch for the tiger one day.
For me. that disconnect from raw, honest emotion amongst the beautiful, fantasized pictures is what is lacking utterly in this film. The most disappointing inclination to stay away from the harsh reality of life is in the third act, which I won’t explain for sake of spoilage. But the audience is treated like an 12-year-old going to see their first R rated movie with mom and dad, being walked out of the theater when things get “too rough.”
I can live with the ol’ “train going through the tunnel” cutaway. But not in a movie that is about the complexity of dealing with your first sexual encounters. I don’t need or want a soft-core or hard-core porn film either. But a movie like The Graduate – sticking to the sex example – managed to express great discomfort and even anger in a sexual encounter without being explicit visually. The shot through Anne Bancroft’s bent leg has become iconic and simplified by that status, but in the life of that movie – still! – you still get a ton of personal politics condensed down into a couple of powerful minutes. Blood is drawn, even without seeing Hoffman’s butt bobbing up and down in and out of frame. (We’ll save that for the McG remake.)
So there are artful ways to smack the audience across the face with some hard reality, without being graphic. But this film cuts away emotionally as well as visually.
I made fun of Heath Ledger licking his fingers in Brokeback Mountain for years… but I have to say, the act of bravery in that choice, as directed and edited by Ang Lee, is profound as an act of filmmaking… like the Anne Hathaway sex scene, a big, bloody mouthful of reality in an otherwise very restrained piece.
But I digress…
The clear comparison to Life of Pi is to Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away, which, ironically, I sat in a Fox screening room alone to watch all those years ago. That was a movie that made people cry over a volleyball. This is a movie that pulls almost every punch.
The thing about Ang Lee, who I believe is masterful filmmaker, is that he makes films about repressed emotion. This film is about that too. But for me, that is not what the heart of this story is. It is about the human mind and spirit and for all of its talk of religion, about as anti-organized-religion as you can get. But spirituality doesn’t soar unless you are completely clear (no Scientology reference intended). And clarity requires both the good and the bad. Repressing one does not illuminate the other.
Weir… Aronofsky… Herzog… Schnabel… Boyle… Assayas… Demme… so many filmmakers who wouldn’t have flinched from the hard stuff. They have walked this walk. And there are others who would have made the fantasia that much more powerful, starting with Malick.
Behn Zeitlin, by the way, made a movie just this year that doesn’t declare its themes nearly as specifically, but is very, very similar to the material here, in Beasts of the Southern Wild… and is a much, much better, more interesting movie.
None of those versions of this would be as easy to sell.
But they might have been great art.
I don’t want to piss on anyone’s birthday cake, but I don’t have high expectations for this film, commercially or in terms of awards. I expect the ambivalent reaction that many have had to The Master, but without the “but obviously the guy is a genius” part.
Ang Lee is so talented… but man, what he could be if he just let his freak flag fly.