What do a shipwrecked Indian boy and a mentally disturbed Bradley Cooper have in common with Anna Karenina?
All of the high-profile Oscar hopefuls are barreling out of the starting gate, hurling toward us, competing for attention, trying to stand out from the pack. Critics are using their typical descriptions like “astounding”, “a staggering performance”, “exhilarating”, or “a stunning masterpiece”. But if we stop to think about it, the movies are all the same drivel. And, not surprisingly, without any meaningful roles featuring LGBT characters, much less bisexual characters.
Life of Pi, Anna Karenina, and Silver Linings Playbook, on the surface, are very different movies. But they are about the same thing: faith. What is faith? Who has it and who doesn’t? And what are the consequences when you don’t have faith or put your faith in the wrong thing?
Life of Pi
directed by Ang Lee
Life of Pi is basically a sermon. Overtly so, unlike the other two movies. The characters wax philosophical about God and whether one should believe in pure facts or put one’s faith in a force greater than all living beings. They debate whether an animal has a soul and whether a human can connect with that soul. They wonder about the virtues of one religion over another. These expository scenes in which a young Pi learns these lessons are presented with about as much passion as a congressional session on CSPAN.
But then comes the long act II in which we are thrown into the ocean with Pi and his tiger named Richard Parker. This is the meat of the movie as we watch Pi’s faith being tested over and over again. It’s a challenging feat to keep an audience attentive on a shipwrecked boy, played by an unknown actor, and a CGI tiger. But these scenes work because they are masterfully executed and Suraj Sharma in his debut film gives – dare I say – a staggering performance (watch him closely in an early scene where Pi is flirting with a girl he likes; Sharma is – how shall I put it – “a revelation”!) I’m not a big fan of Special Effects. To me, a special effect is watching Keira Knightley try to act, but more on that later. The special effects in Pi are breathtaking (I saw the 3D version, mind you), including the scenes when Pi maroons on a strange island populated by thousands of meerkats.
Sadly, the movie falters big time in the final act. There is a lengthy and weird monologue with Pi telling two Japanese officers an alternate version of his story. I felt embarrassed for Sharma because this is an awkward monologue and his inexperience showed. This movie is uncharacteristically lifeless and uneven for a brilliant director like Ang Lee. His magic of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm and Brokeback Mountain is missing here. Still, in the end, Life of Pi delivers its intended message: glory, glory, Hallelujah, God is great, keep the faith.
directed by Joe Wright
The tagline for Anna Karenina poster reads: You Can’t Ask Why About Love. I suppose we are free to ask a lot of whys about this movie. Principally, why on earth did director Joe Wright (Atonement, The Soloist, and the pulse pounding Hanna) decide to film this movie as a staged production? Every scene begins with characters walking onto a stage set with painted backdrops and, at the end of the scene, they exit to the grid up above, crowded with ropes and pulleys, or fade into the stage set for the next scene. Props and furniture are brought onto the scene by stage hands. And there’s even a pivotal scene at a horse race, where Anna’s obsession over her lover becomes truly public, that plays out entirely in this nonsensical and artificial set up. Your patience will be tested as you try to adjust to this distracting format. It’s a stylistic decision that negates the emotional core of Anna’s tragic story.
Secondly, why is the movie almost devoid of any politics? The novel is, first and foremost, a commentary on Russian politics in late 19th century and, within that context, unfolds the story about a fallen woman who throws herself in front of a moving train – the part that everyone seems to remember the most. Missing this critical piece as contextual background misses the main reason why Russian society was the way it was and how it forced Anna into a corner. I get that it would be impossible to fit such complexities into a two hour movie. Filmmakers have to take artistic liberty.
If artistic liberties are to be taken, why not let Anna Karenina be a story about a woman awakening to the desires of her yoni (Indian slang for vagina) after a long, boring marriage? To me, that’s essentially what it is about: a woman paying attention to what her yoni wants, honoring that desire, and loving it. She chooses between hot sex with a dreamboat (the blindingly gorgeous Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Count Vronsky) or no sex with her bespectacled, balding, mild mannered and boring husband (an incredible Jude Law as Alexei Karenin). She challenges the notion that if men are allowed to be adulterous and suffer no consequences, then why can’t women have the same freedom. And for having the temerity to question this hypocrisy, she is stripped of all her rights, loses custody of her children, is abandoned by people she trusted, including the man with whom she is involved. She kills herself not because she can’t face the shaming criticism of Russian aristocracy but because she sees no other way out of her crushing isolation.
Forget Russian society of the late 19th century. American society of the 21st century wants to believe that women don’t have powerful sexual desires and, God forbid, they certainly should not be allowed to act on those desires. It seems easier – perhaps even preferable – for mainstream movies to show a woman as weak, out of control, and therefore deserving of nothing but pity or derision. Anna’s decision to kill herself can be explained away as the result of craziness she brought upon herself.
A key scene shows Karenin chastising her for her behavior and basically implying that she is acting like a Godless woman. And so, in the end, glory, glory, Hallelujah, Anna must throw herself in front of that train because she put her faith in the wrong man. As for Keira Knightley, she is simply not a skilled enough actress to make suffering look compelling. Her Anna merely looks inconvenienced. Between 300 costume changes and that ridiculous staging format, can we really blame her for not connecting to Anna as a person? Director Wright obsesses on Knightley’s beauty, so much so that Anna is sublimely beautiful even in her tragic death.
Silver Linings Playbook
directed by David O. Russell
The character of Tiffany in Silver Linings Playbook is no Anna Karenina. This woman embraces her bad – or what other people think of as bad – attributes. She says emphatically “I like that part of me”. Jennifer Lawrence, taking a break from Katniss (Hunger Games), plays Tiffany with such fierce passion it’s easy to see why she might be the Katherine Hepburn of her generation. With just one look or inflection of her voice, her smoky eyes conveying indignation in one moment and vulnerability the next, Lawrence gives meaning to Tiffany’s underlying grief.
But Silver Linings Playbook is about Pat (Bradley Cooper) who is bipolar and has just been released from a mental institution. He was committed because he catches his wife Nikki (Brea Bee) having sex with another man, snaps and attacks the man. As Pat reenters society, his singular goal is to win back Nikki because he’s still in love with her and he’s convinced that she feels the same way about him. The rest of the movie is basically does he or does he not win her back. Along the way there are twists and turns, some predictable and some truly surprising, like Tiffany.
Pat knows he can win because he has faith. Faith that time heals all wounds and that forgiveness is possible. Faith that a love as strong as his for Nikki will conquer the cynical warnings of his parents (Robert de Niro and Jackie Weaver). Pat is nothing without his faith. He stops taking his meds, sees his therapist only out of obligation, and is fueled simply by his faith that he is on the right quest.
Cooper is amazing and convincing, playing Pat’s softer moments as genuinely as the moments when he is unhinged. It’s a joy to see him shed the stink of those witless and juvenile Hangover movies. It’s as if he needed to be matched with someone like Jennifer Lawrence to bring out the true actor in him. Director David O. Russell, much like Ang Lee, has the magic touch with actors. This is the guy who got a great performance out of Mark Wahlberg in The Fighter (even though Christian Bale went on to win the Oscar for a showier role). Film after film he has proven to be a sophisticated director with great restraint, pulling back on the melodrama just enough to let the written words shine. In Silver Linings Playbook, the words come at machine gun speed and characters sometimes say awful things or don’t say anything when they ought to. He’s a director who has faith that the audience is smart enough to draw their own conclusions, that we don’t have to be led by our noses to subscribe to some mainstream dogma. It makes us forgive the predictably happy ending: glory, glory, Hallelujah, everybody can find true love if we only have faith.
A few words about Indians in Hollywood movies
There is another thing these three movies have in common. They all feature prominent Indian actors in roles big and small. Life of Pi is, of course, a story about an Indian family. Much ado has been made about actors of the stature of Tabu and Irrfan Khan (Slumdog Millionaire) settling for small, innocuous roles in this movie. Both have had a formidable career in Indian films for more than two decades. Well, who cares if the role is small? I’d read the phone book in a two second scene if the director was, hello, Ang Lee! Still, I have seen their Hindi movies and their talent is sort of wasted in Pi. Then there’s Tannishtha Chatterjee, critically acclaimed for her lead role in Brick Lane, wasted in a two-minute scene in Anna Karenina where she doesn’t even have a line to speak. Anupam Kher fares much better in Silver Linings Playbook. He plays Pat’s therapist and there’s an important turning point toward the end of that movie because of something that happens to his character (not going to spoil it for those who haven’t seen it yet). Kher has had an illustrious career in theatre and films in India and has also appeared in Lust, Caution directed by, aha, Ang Lee. Regardless of the size of their roles, it was refreshing to see Indian actors in actual characters and not just as taxi drivers or terrorists.