Armond White: Come Back, Little Buddha

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PIETY WRECKS ANG LEE'S 'LIFE OF PI' By Armond White No one can make a dull film like Ang Lee can. His newLife of Pidoesn't settle for being a 3D extravaganza. At a reported cost of $70 million and three years in production, it is intended to combine philosophical rumination with a tent-pole thrill ride. So soon afterHugo, another presumptuous art-house folly, this one from the book by Yann Martel is titled for a young Indian boy named after the French word for swimming pool, "piscine." Typical of Ang Lee, the name is also meant to suggest highbrow mathematical contemplation as teenage Pi (played by Suraj Sharma) naively embraces all the world's religious beliefs. His youthful optimism gets tested when his family is shipwrecked during a storm in the South Pacific and he is stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. Pi is hardly challenged by variations of human behavior, which should be the basis of philosophical pondering and introspection. Instead, Lee treats Pi's childhood taunts and romance blithely-like trite imitation of Wes Anderson eccentricities. But once Pi's adventures get going, Lee designed the film as a series of large-scale, digital images, perhaps to entail the wonders of nature and the cosmos. Lee's literalized 3D compositions (often melding sea and sky) are both overwrought and underwhelming.
Too much digital technology negates God's miracles. Pi rejects his father's advice, "Religion is darkness. Don't go through life accepting blindly. Begin with thinking rationally." But Lee seems to accept that pragmatism through his rational approach to 3D spectacle. In order for the film's premise to work, it needs the inspiration of a true cinematic artist, not someone literally popularizing a prize-winning book. Lee is ambitious (look at his far-flung filmography-the gallimaufry of a middlebrow who subscribes to theNew York Review of Books) yet he is also far too cautious to exult in cinematic phenomena.
Life of Piis a movie for those people-and there are many-who don't appreciate the style of visionaries such as Bernardo Bertolucci, John Boorman, Brian DePalma, Leos Carax, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Paul W.S. Anderson, Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou, John Moore, Olivier Megaton, Wes Anderson, Steven Spielberg and Wong Kar Wai. How else to explain the unjust dismissal of Bertolucci's magnificent 1994Little Buddha, which combined the modern search for faith with the historical marvel of Buddha's enlightenment? When Bertolucci's contemporary 35mm scenes shifted to 65mm for the ceremonial splendor of the period flashbacks, the transition in detail, grandeur and luxe could make a viewer gasp-and grasp the essential richness of faith. InLife of Pi, Lee's prosaic approach to the boy's adventures from Titanic-style storm to a floating island of meerkats exposes his basic uncinematic nature. He's such an innately dull storyteller that he ends the film with a monologue where middle-aged Pi (played by Irrfan Khan) asks, "Which story do you prefer?" I'd prefer the shorter one we never got to see.

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