Nonthreatening gentleness and prettiness have made Keanu Reeves a teen heartthrob, and the hint of exoticism in his looks has made him a figure of glamour for some adults, as well. If he were a sizzling good actor, he'd have the world at his feet. But alas, poor fellow, he has just enough ability to keep directors optimistically casting him above the level of his competence, and just enough taste to show that this makes him uncomfortable.

Reeves was abysmal as Harker in Bram Stoker's Dracula, but he wasn't really so bad as the villainous Don John in Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing. True, he was the weakest member of the cast, bit players included, but Branagh nonetheless managed to help him to an acquittal. We in the audience sabotaged him--if we had never seen Reeves before, if we didn't associate him with Bill & Ted, we might have found his work uninspired but perfectly serviceable.

Now that Bernardo Bertolucci has cast Reeves as Prince Siddhartha in his new epic Little Buddha, the California-airhead image will likely plague him again--he's on the road to most excellent enlightenment, dude, and all that. But, really, among name American stars (and Bertolucci, no fool, loves to use those good ol' American stars), who is more fit to play the founder of Buddhism? If you're looking for a combination of Zen emptiness and worldwide box-office appeal, you can't do a whole lot better than Reeves.

Bertolucci mounts an impressive pageant of the life of Siddhartha, the ancient Indian prince whose father, wishing to protect him, keeps him within the palace walls and ignorant of the outside world's existence. On his first excursion into the street, the prince catches sight of some miserable beggars, and it sets him on a spiritual quest into the nature of life, death, suffering, pleasure, eternity, identity--the whole shootin' match.

The script, by Rudy Wurlitzer and Mark Peploe, intertwines this traditional tale with a modern story, based on actual events. It involves a group of genial Tibetan monks who travel from a remote monastery in Bhutan to Seattle, because they've had a tip that a particularly revered lama has been reincarnated there, and is now a nice, introspective kid of about 9 (Alex Wiesendanger). They show up at the door of the kid's unsuspecting, upscale parents (Bridget Fonda and Chris Isaak), and the boy takes a shine to them at once.

This section actually takes up more screen time than the ancient story, or seems to. But, possibly by design, we are kept at a distance from much emotional involvement in it. Vittorio Storaro's magnificent cinematography, which fills the Siddhartha story with zesty, inviting color, switches to dull, rainwashed sterility for this century. Of the performances, only that of Ying Ruocheng, as the head lama, is engaging. The boy isn't particularly compelling, and the parents are bland, uninteresting figures--Isaak, a good-looking singer who has had effective bits in a couple of Jonathan Demme films, can't carry this role, nor does Fonda have her usual spark.

Besides, this plot strand builds toward the revelation of which kid--Wiesendanger or one of two other candidates--is the real recycled lama. In what way, exactly, are we supposed to be invested in this outcome? Should we be rooting for one of them? That doesn't seem right somehow.

Bertolucci is still best known here for Last Tango in Paris, but in recent years, with films like The Last Emperor and The Sheltering Sky, he has become increasingly attracted to spectacle. The Buddha story offers him ample opportunities. As with The Last Emperor, there's no depth to the characters as written, but the imagery is often irresistibly lush.

But The Last Emperor's woozy, sensuous rhythms, and John Lone's performance, which generated a character with little help from the script, gave that film at least the illusion of having a pop-Socialist point--it was a naive, half-envious fantasy of the eternal infantilism of the ruling class. Little Buddha's subtext, if it had any, eluded me. It's just wholesome, untextured religious drama, of a sort on which C.B. De Mille might not have been ashamed to put his name.

The climax of the Siddhartha story, however, doesn't have anything quite so dramatically decisive as a wrathful descent from Sinai or the destruction of a Golden Calf going for it. In true modernist fashion, Bertolucci's devotional costumer is resolved through passivity--Siddhartha meditates under a tree for years, unmoved, while the spirits of worldliness and self-absorption throw everything they've got at him. Watching Reeves in this scene, it was hard to banish the thought that he might wear that same contemplative gaze while playing Nintendo, which perhaps strengthens the notion that we're seeing the story as envisioned by a 9-year-old kid.

Of course, Bertolucci has too much taste to resort to De Mille's kind of show-biz gimcrackery; for anachronistic associations, Reeves could never hope to match Edward G. Robinson in The Ten Commandments. Taste alone, however, isn't the same as vision--it can, in fact, be vision's enemy. There is much in Little Buddha that's cinematically grand and beautiful, at the same time that it's conceptually saccharine.

I quite enjoyed Little Buddha--I'd even consider seeing it again--because it was such a pretty, well-rendered show. But I enjoyed The Flintstones for reasons not very different. Being of a hopelessly Western mindset, I cling to the notion that Little Buddha, by virtue of its content, is intrinsically of greater importance than The Flintstones, even though a true Buddhist might tell me that the distinction between the two is an illusion. Dude.


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