Wednesday, November 28, 2012

127 Minutes

Last Tuesday:

"A guy and a tiger on a boat for two hours?" my friend asked.

"No no," I assured him. "There are going to be flashbacks and fantasy sequences. It'll be like 127 Hours."

And so I thought it was a funny coincidence that the running time of Life of Pi happens to be 127 minutes.

(Since I'm a bit of an amateur numerologist, I can't help but notice that I'm writing this post on 11/27.)

In truth, there are a lot of similarities between the two stories/movies. Each features an opening section in which we meet the protagonist (a young man) and gradually start to see how he ended up in his horrible predicament. Then, the second act begins, and he's thrust right into it. Both predicaments present a very low chance of survival, each seemingly hopeless in its own way. (The big difference is that one really happened and the other is a work of fiction.) And both predicaments feature a necessary stasis, essentially pinning the characters to their locations -- whether literally, between two immovable rocks, or figuratively, in an expanse of the Pacific Ocean that looks the same to a person on one day as the next. 

And in both cases I knew the outcome of the story. With 127 Hours, it was a famous incident that had been covered in the news, the details of which we knew only because the man had survived the ordeal. With Life of Pi, I'd read the book.

127 Hours was my favorite movie of 2010. So I should love Life of Pi just as much, right?

Not quite.

And I'm having a hard time figuring out why.

In every respect you can imagine, Ang Lee's movie is nothing less than a perfect adaptation of Yann Martel's book. It's a faithful rendering in almost every aspect, and the visualization of the book's images is something you might have thought was only possible in your mind's eye. It's that beautiful. Some shots are so stunning that you may just scratch your head about how they were even accomplished. Also, I would absolutely recommend seeing it in 3D, even if you are someone who's skeptical of the film industry's motivations when it comes to the third dimension. It's gorgeously immersive.

Nor can I find fault with the lead performance of Suraj Sharma as Pi, short for Piscine Molitor Patel. I don't necessarily think it's in the same league as James Franco's from 127 Hours, but I wouldn't argue with you if you did. Pi is a character obsessed with finding his spiritual path -- he dabbles in several contradictory religions simultaneously -- and that aspect of the character may make the acting performance even more tricky.

So, why am I having trouble saying I loved the movie?

It's not because I knew how it ended, or at least, I don't think it is. Sure, for the most part, you want to be surprised by these things, which is why I know certain film fanatics who have a rule about not reading books they know will be adapted into movies. That's a rather strict stance, because it means you'll miss out on a lot of good books. But I know why they take that stance.

But I also knew how 127 Hours would end, and it vaulted to the #1 spot on my year-end list. As did Michael Almereyda's present-day adaptation of Hamlet, back in 2000. As did Titanic three years before that. Merely knowing the ending of a movie doesn't spoil the experience of it. As I've written before, that's the big difference between movies and TV. With TV, you watch to find out what happened. With movies, you watch to find out how it happened.

So the only element I can really point to was a part of the story structure that may be different from the book, though I can't honestly remember. I've been dancing around whether Pi survives the ordeal, but then I realized, I shouldn't be, because the movie doesn't. You meet the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) before you meet the young one, and he's telling us this whole harrowing story several decades after it happened. But he's not actually telling it to us -- he's telling it to a Canadian writer he's just met, played by Rafe Spall.

For some reason, I was bothered by this narrative device. Every time the film jumps out of the lifeboat and back into the present, I felt unceremoniously ripped out of the story. I think that's because there's something inevitably hokey about it. We used to see movies told this way all the time, with regular breaks from the action to check back in on two doe-eyed children with their chins propped on their palms, asking "And then what happened, Grandpa?" "Well my child, we're just getting to the good part," Grandpa would answer.

So I felt there was something irredeemably quaint about the listener/storyteller relationship between Spall and Khan, as though this one adult man was playing doting grandchild to another adult man. And I think part of the problem is that Spall isn't all that good. They could have chosen anybody for this role, and this guy just wasn't doing it for me. That's a shame, because Khan, an actor I've seen a number of times before, is quite good.

But there's one climactic moment where the script fails Spall more than his line reading. At a truly key moment, Spall is forced to speak a line of dialogue that sounds so goofy, in context, that I felt like laughing, and one member of my audience actually did laugh. Which is certainly not what Lee or writer David Magee were going for in that moment.

However, Lee also makes a very smart decision at the end that I will only hint at here. If you've read the book, you know that something unexpected happens near the end of the story. What Lee chooses to show -- or not show -- during this moment is key in how we read and understand all the previous events we've seen.

Ultimately, I did not feel the surge of emotion in the climax of this movie that I felt during the climax of 127 Hours. Is Danny Boyle just better at emotional manipulation than Ang Lee? Maybe. And is that not necessarily a good thing? Maybe.

But sometimes, all your critical analytical tools fail when confronted with the physiological reaction your body produces as an emotional response to something you're watching. Life of Pi did not produce that physiological reaction in me, at least not to the extent I was hoping.

It's still filmmaking at a nearly unparalleled level, especially on the technical end. And you should most certainly see it in the theater, in 3D if possible.

Will it be my favorite movie of 2012? No, but only one film can claim that hallowed honor.  This just doesn't happen to be it.

After Moon and 127 Hours were two previous #1s essentially carried by one actor, I don't want to become too damn predictable anyway.

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