Imagine The Tree of Life meets Monty Python via Manoj Night Shyamalan. Sounds unlikely, distressing even? This is pretty much what went through my head while watching Lulz of Pi...oops, Life of Pi. I understand that a goodly proportion of people consider this an “important” faith-affirming movie, with a “meaningful” use of 3D to push its message in your face. I will refer to them as the Readers' Digest (RD) crowd. I suspect that (unlike me) they have read several times over the novel, which has received what is called a Man Booker prize (Booker for manly novels? I think not). I give them the benefit of doubt and accommodate their point of view. On the other hand unfeeling uncultured sods like yours truly find this film a barrel of hilarious incredulity.
Life of... begins with Pi recounting the origin of his name, one of the few intentional, thereby wholly unfunny, jokes in the film. Pi then goes on to a rough sketch of his upbringing (as a child the git practices multiple religions, like in Amitabh Bachchan's John Jaani Janardhan act, but with none of the fun) in a family that owned a circus (One of those “life is a circus” cosmic analogies, perhaps?) and the circumstances that lead to his being stranded on a lifeboat for months with a Bengal tiger called Richard Parker (the recounting of how the tiger came to be such named brought to my mind the joke about the Sardar who named his three dogs Satnam Singh, Gurnam Singh and Harnam Singh, and was himself called Tommy). Irrfan Khan as the adult Pi sports a bewildering mongrel accent, but then diction seems a problem with the film in general. Tabu in a blink-and-you-miss part mouths Tamil in a manner that screams phony phonetics, while the speaking style of Pi's uncle appears to have been modeled on Apu from The Simpsons. Suraj Sharma, who plays Pi in the bulk of the narrative, speaks English with a South Indian accent, acceptable given his maternal side origins.
The bulk of the film is about Pi surviving on the boat and forming a coexistence of sorts with the tiger. Apparently the events of the voyage and the formation of this coexistence are meant to nurture in us a belief of an omniscient God. Regardless of your personal beliefs there are major problems with this agenda, the foremost being Pi himself. Simply put the character is soft-headed and delusional, the sort that would regard the delivery of the morning newspaper as evidence of divine intervention. His act of blubbering repentance when a fish he kills for food loses its color on death only convinces me that this character was a God-obsessed nutcase long before he got on any boat.
Thanks to the film's need to keep from shocking its RD crowd, it's not even particularly gripping as a survival story. Any deaths or acts of violence take place off-screen. Despite the boat being the site of killing of a hyena, an orangutan and a zebra, there's no sense of tragedy because of this sort of pussy-footing. What we get instead are reams (and reams and reams) of mawkish Hallmark Channel monologue. The plot point involving the mysterious island with meerkats is far more apt for a schlocky Roger Corman movie. Without going into spoiler territory, there's a twist at the end which suggests that Pi is just telling a made-up story that he can substitute at a moment's notice with another (similarly improbable as the first one, but more Takesh Kitano than Takashi Miike). So what's the point here? Why does anyone take this woolly-headed cauliflower seriously? How come Pi isn't in a straitjacket inside a cell with padded walls? What this film feels most like is a spoof on the existential / magic realism genre, like a slightly more intellectual entry in the Scary Movie / Date Movie series. I can well imagine Ang Lee bursting into giggles at the end of every scene over what a huge con he is pulling over the audience.
Visually the film is often spectacular. Like my good friend Prachit said, “It's one of the best-looking worst movies”. Anyone who claims that this movie should be seen in 2D instead of 3D has either seen a bad 3D screening or is being a prig. It is very evident from early on that 3D is inherent to the director's intent. There are many frames with multiple layers that take full advantage of the added dimensionality. The only sequence that suffered a bit was the storm sequence where the low light levels and general murkiness of the scene causes a drop in the visible detail, but that's amply compensated over by several scenes where the 3D really shines. Most of Mychael Danna's score is rubbish new-age hooey.
A few words about the tiger...technically it's a marvel. From what I understand it was done using visual trickery instead of an actual animal (as I suspect, were most of the other animals shown in this film), and the illusion is mostly complete – my only gripe is that the sound design doesn't quite reflect the weight of the movement of a 500-pound animal.