**1/2 (out of four)
Boasting a title that Homer Simpson would decry for false advertising—it’s easy to imagine him hungrily moaning, “Mmm, a life of pie!”—”Life of Pi” is not really about the life of man named Pi. A more accurate title would be, “My Adolescent Religious Exploration and Traumatizing Shipwreck and Don’t Worry About the Next Three Decades Because I’m Alive and Everything Turned Out Fine.”
Great stories don’t need to call themselves great stories, but that’s what “Life of Pi” does. A nameless writer in India (Rafe Spall of “Prometheus”) hears that he simply must meet a man in Canada with a story “that would make me believe in God.” That’s enough to raise his curiosity; he travels to Montreal and sits down with Pi (played as an adult by Irrfan Khan), who obviously enjoys Ted Mosby’s long, continuous storytelling style. Pi then recounts a youth lived as a Muslim, Christian and Hindu and focuses on the time the ship he and his family were taking to North America tipped. That leaves Pi (played by Suraj Sharma as a 17-year-old) alone in a lifeboat with a zebra, orangutan, hyena and Bengal tiger—funnily named Richard Parker as a result of a paperwork error.
Director Ang Lee’s (“Brokeback Mountain”) gorgeously shot 3-D film features spectacular footage on the water: A giant storm tosses boats the size of a city block and people the size of Gerard Depardieu (pointlessly cast as a racist Frenchman) like playthings; Pi, who grows not a whisker in months and months at sea, labors to endure endless, hungry days with his animals.
In his big-screen debut, Sharma’s an ideal find, holding the screen as well as Tom Hanks in “Cast Away.” His determination astounds, especially as he refuses to betray Richard Parker, which would represent a significant increase in Pi’s safety but mean stabbing a valued companion in the back.
Yet “Life of Pi,” adapted from Yann Martel’s novel, ultimately becomes a heavy story that’s deceptively shallow. The cracks in Pi’s faith conveniently disappear without explanation. As a boy he claims a priest’s discussion of God and Jesus “made no sense” and as an adult notes that his father’s polio wasn’t cured by God but by Western medicine. Nevertheless, an experience that kills his family and nearly destroys him solidifies his belief? Come on.
Plus, how this incident impacts the rest of the life of Pi remains totally and absurdly unclear. Since the writer takes no notes and doesn’t tape-record the story, he will hopefully question Pi about that when he asks to hear the whole thing over again.
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