Ang Lee’s LIFE OF PI is a masterpiece of directing, cinematography, and visual effects. It rightly deserved all four of the Oscars it came away with a couple weeks ago. The story is inspirational, while also chillingly surreal. The performance given by Suraj Sharma as the young Pi is terrifically compelling.
But there is one serious problem with the narrative arch of this film.
What the heck is with that pasty white guy they keep cutting to halfway through the story!?
Since you maybe haven’t seen the film, let me explain. The story is narrated by an adult Pi, telling his tale to an author who has found Pi living a fairly normal life in Canada. The author is pretty lame, to be honest. We learn that he spent a year living in India working on a book that he was never able to complete. Seriously, this guy has got some major first world white guy problems. When the audience is just getting wrapped up in the fascinating story of Pi’s shipwreck, the film keeps cutting to this dumb white guy, totally ruining the effect.
Frankly, I am sick of Hollywood’s notion that audiences can’t relate to a story if it isn’t told through the eyes of a white person. The same thing happened in THE HELP (2011) where the wealthy Southern would-be journalist gets involved in the injustices of Jim Crow. Although THE HELP was really Abileen’s story, it had to be framed within a white narrative. It is just the same with LIFE OF PI – Pi’s experience is poached, as a story, by an author who lived in India for a year and couldn’t find anything to write about.
But I am going to claim that it is the filmmaker’s fault that films follow this pattern. We all know that the film industry can take a book, tear it to shreds, and rehash it as a completely different story with the same title. So don’t tell me they can’t look at LIFE OF PI and say, “This is a movie about a shipwrecked Indian boy.” Or, in the case of THE HELP, “This is a movie about the lives of black servants in the Jim Crow south.”
That said, my reservations about the narrative structure of LIFE OF PI do not exclude me from the hundreds of theatre goers who find this a top-notch picture. It took my breath away several times. I laughed and I cried as much as the next person. It is nothing less than a stunning film.