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Life of Pi

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Stylish 'Life of Pi' falls short of heavenly
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies

"A story that will make you believe in God." That is what the survival tale of a young Indian man lost at sea after a fearsome shipwreck is purported to be, both in this new movie from director Ang Lee and the novel by Yann Martel, on which it is based. And "Life of Pi" certainly is a wondrous film, a work of often breathtaking visual beauty. It certainly testifies strongly to the near-magical powers that material image-making tools wield today. As for providing a genuine religious/spiritual experience, well ...

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Don't get me wrong, this is a protean feat of moviemaking from a technical standpoint and from a narrative standpoint. The main crux of the picture involves the title character, Pi, stranded in the middle of an ocean on a lifeboat, then a raft attached to the lifeboat. The raft is necessary because Pi (Suraj Sharma) is sharing the lifeboat with a Bengal tiger that's both really irritated (you know how cats get around water) and really, you know, hungry. Screenwriter David Magee and director Lee demonstrate the strange path Pi took to this particular circumstance with exemplary speed and skill.

What then transpires is how Pi learns to share his space with the tiger, who has a human name (longish story), and how they forge a tacit (the tiger can't talk or anything) bond (or so Pi comes to believe) in order to make it to land and safety and something other than canned food or hard-caught fish. Aside from hair-raising face-offs between the tiger and the emotionally upended Pi (who lost his whole family in the shipwreck, so it's understandable), there are a lot of scenes in which the characters' surroundings are imbued with a terrible sumptuousness, visual evocations of the scarily awe-inspiring vastness of life and space. The use of color in particular is really inspired. Working with cinematographer Claudio Miranda and production designer David Gropman, Lee unleashes a palette that evokes the most outlandish work of the French Impressionists with a touch of Bollywood-inflected exotic spice to boot.

But the frame story, in which an older Pi (Irrfan Khan), a happily settled vegetarian living in Canada, tells his tale to a white male writer who in the credits is called "The Writer" is both a little cloying and forced and smacks a bit of, dare I say it, colonialist thought. I know that it's a faithful adaptation from the book, and I know the book's author is a white male writer, but I personally am just a wee bit tired of the convention in which a representative of The Other relates a tale of profundity to a white dude. Changing it up a little can't hurt. Hell, a white woman would be less boring. I understand that second-guessing the artist is poor critical practice. But that fact remains that this convention, which was always pretty patronizing to begin with, has ossified into cliché, and the movie suffers for it.

The story itself (possible minor spoiler alert) does have a sting in its tail, and I think the movie kind of drastically undersells it. After going into meticulous detail to make the viewer feel Pi's story as Pi tells it, the movie handles an alternate version of the story, and its ramifications, in an almost shockingly perfunctory manner. Which I think, in the end, compromises what the story wants to convey. I'm not sure the extent to which a different approach might have enhanced the movie's emotional and/or spiritual pull. The metaphors at work here are always in danger of being overstated to begin with. But despite being incredibly engrossing for pretty much the balance of its running time, in the end, for this viewer "Life of Pi" didn't reach the higher ground it promises. If it makes you believe in God, though, bully for you.

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Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.
 

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