The comedy sensation of the summer is coming soon to a theater near you, and the latest laughers from Ben Stiller, Anna Faris and Brad Pitt can’t hold a candle to it. The movie’s star? The Dalai Lama.
Don’t get me wrong. The Nobel Peace Prize winner and spiritual leader of the Tibetan people does nothing to demean himself in director Khashyar Darvich’s documentary Dalai Lama Renaissance. On the other hand, practically all the other human beings who appear in the film make absolute fools of themselves.
Here’s the deal: Way back in 1999 (no explanation is offered for the near-decade-long delay in putting the picture out), a chap named Wayne Teasdale came up with a plan for transforming the world and basically solving all the problems of the human race. He had an acquaintance of some sort with His Holiness and determined that the key to world peace lay in rounding up 40 of the planet’s most innovative thinkers from a mix of fields (how that mix was determined is likewise never explained), bringing them together at the DL’s headquarters in the North Indian Himalayas to brainstorm, and then running their recommendations by the holy man for approval.
On the surface, the whole thing sounds like a noble enough lark. What harm could possibly come from a roomful of scientists, teachers, poets, painters, theologians and psychologists spending days hashing out a strategy for saving the world? None, certainly. Chaos? Now that’s another matter.
Picture the most disorganized business retreat or out-of-control school board meeting you’ve ever attended and multiply the mayhem factor by about, uh, 40. The conference is held under the auspices of an entity called the Synthesis Group, and its leaders are a gaggle of well-meaning but oblivious bureaucrats who seem less concerned about the future of humankind than with the order in which attendees are permitted to speak.
Clearly, Darvich believed the movie he was signing on to make would chronicle a milestone moment in history, a moment when science and religion would converge to offer the world a new and improved approach to spirituality. What he wound up with — through no fault of his own — plays more like a Monty Python parody of new-age workshops. Remember the scenes in The Life of Brian where John Cleese, as leader of the People’s Front of Judea, never quite gets around to planning a strike against the Romans because he’s too busy fussing over meeting protocol and rules of order? There are scenes here every bit as comically absurd.
Despite their undeniable brilliance, the participants at the summit never come close to agreeing on a workable agenda, much less achieving the world-altering Synthesis of expertise they’ve traveled so far to forge. Cosmochemists and quantum physicists bicker and interrupt one another like ill-mannered schoolchildren from the start, and, as the days pass and people fail to check their egos at the door, it seems ever more likely that their audience with the Dalai Lama will prove a time-wasting travesty. It’s like “The View” with PhDs. Only by this point, it’s too late for the poor director. He has no choice but to keep rolling and hope the day will somehow be saved.
If you’ve ever met him or watched footage of him, the first thing you notice about His Holiness is that he laughs constantly. Giggles, really. He gives the impression of caring profoundly and possessing great intelligence, but at the same time of finding everything cosmically funny. He has ample cause for laughter when the day arrives for the group to present the fruit of its deep thinking. What did it come up with? The idea of supporting Tibet by organizing a boycott of Chinese goods. It took 40 geniuses a week to think of that?
If there’s an engaging scene in this film, it’s the one that follows, in which the Dalai Lama patiently explains why he can’t sign off on the plan. He’s concerned with all humanity, he points out, not just Tibetans. The last thing he’d want to do is make life harder for someone living in China. He says this very clearly. The proposal is obviously nixed. And then something hilarious happens. The 40 geniuses reconvene and attempt to parse bits of what was said to convince themselves the plan actually got a thumbs up.
So the whole endeavor proves a bust. But poor Khashyar Darvich has all this footage, and he’s got to do something with it. He needs to package all the infighting and hot air as an inspirational saga — a “cauldron of becoming,” as one participant puts it. A “sacred journey,” in the words of another. So what does he do? He closes the film with a disclaimer stating, “Members of the Synthesis Group felt inspired and changed by their experience. Feeling inspired,” it continues, “the Group took what they learned to their families, friends and communities and to their work,” where it “has reached and inspired millions of people worldwide.” These people must have really big families. I can’t remember the last time a movie made me laugh so hard.
Did I mention it’s narrated by Harrison Ford? You know a documentary about Tibet is a stinker when it can’t even secure the services of Richard Gere.