The Problem With Brad

THERE ARE ANY NUMber of actors I could imagine playing an arrogant, self-absorbed Austrian mountain climber, but Brad Pitt wouldn't come first to mind. Yet here he is, blonder than usual but still cute as a button, hoisting his lean American body up the Himalayas in Jean-Jacques Annaud's epic-scale Seven Years in Tibet. Pitt, sporting a passable Teutonic accent, is playing real-life adventurer Heinrich Harrer, who served as a tutor to the young Dalai Lama in Lhasa just before the Chinese invaded Tibet.

The filmmakers didn't know when they filmed his story that Harrer had been a Nazi and an SS member before setting off on his trip in 1939. In postproduction they slipped in a few references to his past, thus giving their chilly protagonist even more bad karma to overcome on his voyage of spiritual rebirth. Leaving his pregnant wife behind, Harrer sets off with Peter Aufschnaiter (David Thewlis) to scale Nanga Parbat in the Himalayas. The mission--replete with cliffhangers and an avalanche--fails, but the expedition makes it clear that our antihero is a selfish prima donna interested only in the pursuit of glory. The trouble with Becky Johnston's screenplay is that it spends nearly an hour and 20 minutes making this same point over and over before Brad... that is, Heinrich, finally gets to meet the 14-year-old Dalai Lama. This odyssey--Harrer's years as a prisoner of war, his escape and arduous trek to Tibet--is highly picturesque (the landscapes are spectacular, the Argentine Andes doubling for Tibet and northern India) but dramatically dull. Indeed, the entire first half of Annaud's movie feels superfluous.

""Seven Years in Tibet'' comes alive only when the young Bhutanese actor Jamyang Jamtsho Wangchuk, as the pampered teenage spiri- tual leader, gets his long- delayed chance to melt frosty Mr. Yellowhead. Pitt, obviously relieved to drop his scowl and flash his smile, flirts with the camera winningly while building His Holiness his own screening room, explaining world geography and coming to see that selflessness isn't such a bad thing after all. Wangchuk's Dalai Lama is a real charmer, and when we add our knowledge of the man he will grow up to be, the movie achieves a glimmer of the emotional impact it wants to have. What we don't care about is Harrer's relationship with the son he's never seen; we're meant to see the Dalai Lama as his surrogate son. It's a weightless conceit, and Pitt can't make it palpable.

Annaud's handsome, well-intentioned movie gives us a course in Buddhism 101. These are nice people who don't like to kill things, but their traditional ways are about to be wiped out by the Chinese communists (bad people who like to kill things a lot). Nutty as Bernardo Bertolucci's ""Little Buddha'' was, it brought us closer to an understanding of this religion than Annaud's through-Western-eyes glimpse. And there is reason to hope that Martin Scorsese's ""Kundun,'' coming this Christmas, will be a less Hollywoodized excursion into the Dalai Lama's life. Unfortunately for ""Seven Years in Tibet,'' its focus is on the wrong guy. Harrer may be a fascinating figure in real life, but he never shows up here. The guy we're watching is never anyone but Brad Pitt. That may be good news to his fans, but it's fatal for the movie.