HOLLYWOOD'S SUDDEN INTEREST in Tibet is deeply suspect, but Brad Pitt's motives seem pure. He didn't covet the lead role in French director Jean-Jacques Annaud's new epic "Seven Years in Tibet" in order to make a political declaration. He wanted to make a professional one -- to prove that he could anchor a long, serious, probing film. And to his credit, in recent interviews he's actually sounded as if there's more inside his cranium than newly-mowed hay. "Who cares what I think China should do (about Tibet)?" he told Time magazine. "I'm a fucking actor ... I'm a grown man who puts on makeup."
The good news about "Seven Years in Tibet" is that Pitt actually does, for the most part, hold his own against the grand sunlit vistas that Annaud continually throws up behind him. The bad news is that Pitt, despite this film's high-minded intentions (there are Yo-Yo Ma cello solos on the soundtrack, and China expert Orville Schell acted as an advisor during the shoot), or more likely because of them, finds himself trapped in a long, earnest movie that fails to ever feel very alive. "Seven Years in Tibet" scrolls by you like a gargantuan IMAX monster (Annaud directed the early IMAX clunker "Wings of Courage"). The mountain peaks keep jutting up under your nose, but the characters keep receding -- you feel like you're looking at them through the butt end of a telescope.
Based on Heinrich Harrer's 1953 memoir of the same title, "Seven Years in Tibet" does have a strong narrative to unspool. In 1939, Harrer (Pitt), a famous Austrian mountaineer, set off to climb one of the highest peaks in the Himalayas, a mountain called Nanga Parbat, with a group led by his countryman Peter Aufschnaiter (David Thewlis). The climb was a disaster; beset by avalanches and injuries, the group never made it to the summit. Worse, several of the climbers suffered a long internment in a British prisoner-of-war camp. Harrer and Aufschnaiter escaped and set out on a brutal two-year trek through the Himalayas to the forbidden Tibetan city of Lhasa, where Harrer, who was among the first Europeans to enter the city, befriended the current Dalai Lama as a young boy.
Annaud's film makes it plain -- much more so than Harrer's memoir does -- that our protagonist is a cold customer. (The film includes recent revelations, not in the book, that Harrer abandoned his pregnant wife to go climbing, and that he was a Nazi and SS member before setting off on his trip. Harrer, now 85, has acknowledged his Nazi affiliation and called it a youthful mistake.) The movie's first scenes depict an icy Harrer leaving his wife behind at a train station, and once he's on the mountain he becomes no more sympathetic -- he's clearly preoccupied solely with his own glory. The other climbers want to stick him with their ice picks.
"Seven Years in Tibet" is split neatly into two halves -- halves you're tempted to label "Mountain Brad" and "Golden Brad." In the first, Pitt scowls and stomps around as if he's been taking asshole lessons from Oasis' Liam Gallagher. In the second, he peeks out from behind his tumbling blonde locks and impersonates an earnest seeker, albeit one who can flatten a room with a nuclear grin. Personally, I'll take Mountain Brad, no contest. Aren't people who seek enlightenment always more fun before they find it?
In the movie's first section, as Harrer and company work their way up Nanga Parbat (the movie's mountain scenes were filmed in Argentina), Annaud actually manages to give the narrative some momentum -- you get caught up in a number of cliffhanging moments, such as the one in which an injured Pitt manages to save Thewlis' life after Thewlis tumbles off the side of a cliff. After devouring Jon Krakauer's breathless Everest tale "Into Thin Air," perhaps I'm overly sensitized to the perils and rewards of serious climbing, but Annaud gives these scenes some honest kick.
The best parts of "Seven Years in Tibet," however, arrive after the climbing scenes and the dank, rainy footage of the men nobly suffering in the British POW camp. Annaud's film comes most fully alive when, after their escape, Pitt and Thewlis are forced -- against both their wills -- to hike together through the Himalayas. Thewlis, best known for his astonishing turn in Mike Leigh's "Naked," is a magnificently vivid actor, and the scenes in which he and Pitt argue about their dwindling food supply (there's a scene in which Pitt chews unhappily on some horse flesh sushi), fret over frostbite and generally keep each other going are this film's quirkiest and most human moments.
Once these two dharma bums finally stumble into Lhasa, there's a brief struggle for the heart of a lovely tailor (Lhakpa Tsamchoe), which Pitt loses. He's on the verge of heading home in disgust when he's summoned by the young Dalai Lama, played with radiant glee by 14-year-old Jamyang Wangchuk. He wants to meet the man he calls "yellowhead," and tap into his knowledge about the outside world. "For example," the Dalai Lama asks Harrer, "where is Paris, France? And what is a Molotov cocktail? And who is Jack the Ripper?" It comes as little surprise when he asks Harrer to build him a movie theater.
The cross-cultural communication that results feels saccharine and stale -- if you remember the scenes of Harrison Ford bringing Top-40 radio to the folksy Amish in "Witness," you already know more than you need to about what happens here -- as does the movie's insistence that we view Harrer's relationship with the Dalai Lama through the prism of his regrets about his own abandoned son back in Austria. As you watch Pitt grow ever more enlightened, you feel the smarts draining straight out of "Seven Years in Tibet." It's a scenery-soaked exercise that never really makes a case for itself as a drama. It's all Zen flesh, and no Zen bones.