The childishly placid doe eyes, the angel-lipped smile, the dawdling surfer monotone — cherubic hunk that he is, Keanu Reeves’ salient characteristic as an actor has always been the way he walks around in a sweet-spirited fog. He’s like a guy happily stoned on his overtaxed brain cells. To his credit, this 29-year-old star, who is best known for his stuporous comic turns in the Bill & Ted films, has also done his bit to become a most excellent actor, honing his chops on prestige period pieces like Dangerous Liaisons and Much Ado About Nothing. The surprise is how well his ambition has paid off. Stretching his modest, likable talent in opposite directions, Reeves now stars in two major releases, the dazzling action thriller Speed and Bernardo Bertolucci’s sugarcoated metaphysical fairy tale, Little Buddha. Which role is the bigger stretch? It turns out to be the action hero — but only because Speed, the more brazenly commercial of the two films, is also the superior work of artistry.
To skip back a millennium or two, the notion of casting Reeves as Siddhartha, the pampered prince who abandons his kingdom and becomes the Buddha, was both the smartest and the dumbest move Bernardo Bertolucci made in his ravishingly vacuous Little Buddha. With his bronze skin and black-rimmed eyes, his hollow cheeks and Jesus-of-Revlon ringlets (he looks the way that must envision himself in his naughtiest daydreams), Reeves, in the early palace scenes, has the kind of androgynous star beauty that makes the camera swoon. Here, though, as in Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, there’s a bubbleheaded contradiction between the splendor of the imagery and the message it’s supposed to carry-that all this luxurious royalty has imprisoned the hero’s soul.
By the time Siddhartha leaves the palace to pursue the path of denial and wisdom, we’re all but forced to linger on Reeves’ limitations as a vessel of higher consciousness. (When he recoils from the forest ascetics and discovers the truth of “the middle way,” I thought: Wasn’t that Bill Clinton’s strategy on NAFTA?) Buddhism, to put it mildly, gets short shrift in Little Buddha. You could easily watch the film and think that this most challenging of religions boils down to treating other people with compassion — a worthy idea, but hardly one that Buddhists have a lock on. The Siddhartha sections, at least, are watchable in their very grandiosity; they’re New Age Cecil B. DeMille. Where the movie flops egregiously is in its parallel contemporary story, which centers on a young boy from Seattle (Alex Wiesendanger) who is hailed as the reincarnation of a famous lama and brought to Bhutan, only to discover that he’s not the only reincarnation: There are two others, a cute little Indian boy and girl. The movie, in other words, presents us with a veritable Mod Squad of reincarnated tykes. You hardly need to be devoted to the ways of Buddhism to see when a gifted filmmaker, for the sake of multicultural niceness, has enthusiastically abandoned his mind.