Amore corrosive Anglo parallel to “Tales of the City” ’70s nostalgia, “The Buddha of Suburbia” easily rates as writer Hanif Kureishi’s best screen work since “My Beautiful Laundrette.” Already broadcast in series form at home, the consistently entertaining, provocative four-hour effort appears a natural for export.
But just how is a big question. With complex narrative (from Kureishi’s novel) already packed too tight at four hours, editing to viable theatrical length seems impossible. And given PBS’ recent slink away from co-producing a sequel to the highly rated but conservative-bashed “Tales,” most obvious U.S. broadcast route for this considerably gamier entity seems roadblocked. Pic’s specialized, hipper-than-thou appeal makes sale to commercial cablecasters look problematic as well.
If nothing else, “Buddha’s” uncertain fate highlights the awesome gulf between viewer tolerance/politics on each side of the Atlantic. (And as evidence of the envelope pushed by “Buddha,” note this series did provoke some public outrage during BBC airing, whereas “Tales” coaxed nary a whimper.)
Pic reps a qualified comeback triumph for co-adaptor Kureishi, whose “Sammy and Rosie Get Laid” skirted smug p.c. overkill, while his directorial debut, “London Kills Me,” was an unqualified disaster. As “Buddha” spans the Me Decade from hangover hippiedom to dawn of the Thatcher Era, it too sports glib aspects and a somewhat chill heart. But the kaleidoscopic narrative keeps attention riveted.
Story centers on young Karim Amir (Naveen Andrews), a South London suburban teen born to Indian father and English ma. At start, civil-servant pa Haroon (Roshan Seth) is gleefully exploiting the vogue for “Eastern philosophies” he knows nothing about. “Masquerading as a Buddhist,” dad delivers banal happy-talk aphorisms to upscale patrons at a premium, while secretly carrying on with wealthy acolyte Eva Kay (Susan Fleetwood). When latter liaison goes overground, Karim’s devastated mother retreats with her younger son; he joins dad and Mrs. Kay in their move to central London.
Karim drifts about, eventually finding fledgling success as a stage actor. His parallel number is erstwhile school chum Charlie (Steven Mackintosh), Eva’s only child. Charlie’s failed grab at glam-rock stardom puts him in a prime position later to dive into the exploding punk music scene.
Other subplots involve the bizarre arranged marriage foisted upon Karim’s friend Jamila, henpecked Uncle Ted, and various loyalties forged or abandoned along each leading character’s path. Along the way, pretensions of music, theater and New Age scenesters are skewered.
Beyond these satirical digs, “Buddha” lets its characters grow in surprising, even poignant directions. But Kureishi’s bent toward hip-flippant strokes sometimes robs them of sufficient depth — the breakneck pace allows director Roger Michell little room to let momentous shifts in behavior and circumstance take shape naturally. Instead, they’re too often bomb-dropped for shock value.
It’s to the credit of the filmmakers that “Buddha” remains assured and grounded throughout — though an even longer running time would have helped. More problematic in terms of overall empathy is central figure Karim, attractively played by Andrews (who like several thesps here figured in “London Kills Me”). Rootless to the end, Karim may be an apt metaphor for Kureishi’s cagey take on ’70s “freedoms.” But his status as observer to everyone’s lives (including his own) leaves the film with a hole at its center.
Performances are uniformly terrific, pacing smart. Michell dives full steam into any number of showy set pieces, from early faux-guru gatherings to later punk clubs and weird episodes amid the hyper-method world of a stage mentor. Karim’s embroilment in a seedy orgy scene with said mentor, his wife and an unstable actress g.f. (Jemma Redgrave) is hilarious in ways unlikely to pass U.S. broadcast muster anytime soon. Elsewhere, upfront depiction of drug use, bisexuality and nudity (male and female) keep “Buddha” vivid, but won’t help its potential stateside chances.
Tech/design work is excellent all around. David Bowie wrote the bland theme song and contributes incidental music; his ’70s hits are more gainfully employed , among many apt period tunes soundtracked.