Review: Ang Lee’s ambitious ‘Life Of Pi’ dazzles and frustrates in equal measure

I have been an ardent supporter of Ang Lee’s work over the years, and if nothing else, “Life Of Pi” demonstrates just how much control he maintains over his craft, both technically and artistically.  In 1997, when most people were arguing over whether “Titanic” or “LA Confidential” was the best film of the year, I was of the opinion that the sadly-underseen “The Ice Storm” was better than either of them.  When his “Hulk” came out, I loved it precisely because it was such a left-of-center take on the material, and there are images from the film that are still among the most beautiful in any superhero film so far.  And when I posted my article about the 50 Best Films of the last decade, “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” landed right on top of my list.  It is safe to say I am a fan of his work.

I am not, however, a fan of “Life Of Pi.”

I believe that David Magee’s screenplay is the best possible adaptation of Yann Martel’s novel, but the problems I have begin with the book, and they’ve been carried over to the movie, completely intact and just as problematic.  This is one of the most striking cases I’ve ever seen of the craftsmanship of a film being at total odds with the text itself.  I love how the film tells the story, but I don’t like the story.  It is almost purely metaphorical, and for much of the running time, it is an overwhelming visceral experience.  Lee’s use of 3D in the film is remarkable, and as a theatrical experience, it’s hard to argue with the impact.  But it is also hard to argue that the film isn’t also frustrating and flawed on a fundamental level, one that bothers me far more than the visuals dazzle me.

The film begins with a writer (Rafe Spall) coming to visit a man named Pi (Irrfan Khan), a Canadian citizen who started his life as the Indian son of a zoo-owning family.  The writer was sent by a mutual friend to hear a story “that will make you believe in God,” as he puts it.  Pi takes his time revving up to the story, and we see some of his life in India as a boy.  His father (Adil Hussain) teaches him some hard lessons about the nature of the animals they are raising, especially when Pi gets too close to Richard Parker, the tiger they own.  His father reminds him that Richard Parker is a wild animal and that, given the chance, he would kill Pi and never hesitate.

This lesson becomes important when the family decides to move to Canada, taking their zoo animals with them so they can pass them off to a buyer and start their new life.  The ship they’re on encounters a massive storm one night and goes down, and in the ensuing chaos, Pi manages to end up in a lifeboat, his entire family still on the ship as it goes down.  It is a harrowing sequence, masterfully staged, and at the end of it, Pi finds himself alone with three other survivors.  One is a zebra with a broken leg, one is a hyena, and one is Richard Parker himself.

The majority of the film deals with Pi’s time out in the ocean, alone with these animals, as he wrestles with some basic issues of survival.  There are some rations onboard the boat, but as you can imagine, those three animals aren’t particularly suited to life in a small space together.  It does not take long for Pi to end up with only Richard Parker as company.  Their relationship is expertly etched, and the CGI work on the animals in the film is terrific.  Rhythm and Hues won their first Oscar for their work on “Babe,” making those animals talk, and the animals here give even better performances without ever resorting to anthropomorphizing them.  They are simply animals, and Pi has to figure out how to keep Richard Parker at bay long enough for them to be rescued.

And that’s pretty much it.  There’s not much else to the narrative.  However, if you’ve read the book, then you know how the story ends, and for those of you who don’t wish to be spoiled, suffice it to say this is a case of ten minutes at the end of the film undoing every bit of goodwill earned by the rest of the running time.  When you start your movie with one character promising another that this story will make you believe in God, and then you end the film in the way that this one does, you are essentially slapping your audience in the face simply because they chose to listen to the tale you were telling.  It is an infuriating ending, and rather than offering up any sort of spiritual answer, it comes across as a cheap trick.

The biggest difference between the book and the film is that, in the book, I was slightly more willing to accept the major perception shift that takes place because I was reading a story.  I had to accept that the narrator of that story may in fact be unreliable, and I had to either accept or reject the story being told based on my own feelings.  When you’re making a movie, though, you’re showing the audience these things.  Ang Lee has done a tremendous job, working with cinematographer Claudio Miranda and production designer David Gropman, of building this gorgeous, slightly magical world, and by bringing it to such vivid life, he’s not leaving interpretation up to you. Here it is.  Here are the events being described, brought to vivid life, inarguable and real.  Even the 3D is used to make this journey seem more tangible, more experiential.

So when your main character tells us in those last five minutes that the entire story might just be a metaphor and that something completely different actually occurred, it is a betrayal of that faith we’ve placed in the storyteller.  Suddenly, nothing we saw mattered.  All of it is up for grabs.  Far from making me believe in God, this story serves as a reminder that nothing we are told is necessarily true, and that sometimes we prefer the story that makes us feel good to the harsh realities of what actually occurred.  In a year where we’ve already seen two films that basically pull the rug out from under the audience following fairly major sequences (“Savages” and “Breaking Dawn Part 2,” this manages to be a bigger cheat than either of those.  And while I think Suraj Sharma does very nice work as young Pi Patel, it is quite telling that in the scene where he finally reveals this perception shift (I am hesitant to call it a twist, since it’s really more of a wholesale denial of everything you’ve seen before it), his performance suddenly rings false.

If all you care about is the visual experience, “Life Of Pi” offers some of the lushest imagery of the year, and Lee really has embraced the potential of 3D in a way that very few other filmmakers have even attempted.  It is gorgeous, often jaw-dropping, and if the film ended at a certain point on a beach, I would probably be giving it an enthusiastic recommendation.  Instead, I found it to be a heart-breaking experience to see this much good work used in service of a story that is, ultimately, nothing but empty calories, a spiritual shell game.  “Life Of Pi” is the most impressive empty container of the year, and one of the most frustrating movies I’ve seen in recent memory.

“Life Of Pi” opens in theaters nationwide November 21, 2013.