'Peaceful Warrior': Zen And the Art of Kitsch

Am I lord of the rings yet? Scott Mechlowicz stars as Dan Millman, an aspiring Olympic gymnast, in the platitude-filled
Am I lord of the rings yet? Scott Mechlowicz stars as Dan Millman, an aspiring Olympic gymnast, in the platitude-filled "Peaceful Warrior." (Photos By Chuck Zlotnick -- Lionsgate)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 14, 2006

Two words that have never before been used in conjunction with each other are "Zen" and "kitsch." Until now.

Alas, the grindingly awful "Peaceful Warrior" is Zen kitsch of the highest magnitude, a seemingly endless ordeal by platitude. Double-alas, I therefore sentence myself to a torrent of angry e-mail, as surely, like most crackpot enterprises, "Peaceful Warrior" will have its true believers.

So let me say at the outset: The problem isn't the Zen, it's the kitsch.

Anyone can believe anything or nothing, just don't touch my kids and I'll leave you alone. It's not that "Warrior" counsels the void as the final plateau of the enlightened mind and cultivates a deep belief in the subconscious -- fine and dandy, I agree! -- it's how it goes about this important crusade, in ten-ton boots, accompanied by an oompah band and no taste, self-discipline, moderation or common sense whatsoever.

To put it another way: Gee, I never met a "magic gas station movie" that I liked.

The picture begins with Scott Mechlowicz as Dan Millman (whose self-help book the movie is based on), a Berkeley gymnast (and A-student and studmonkey gal-wise, as he smugly informs us) who, though having it all, is still secretly wracked by fear, guilt and emptiness. What does it mean? Why isn't life better? Why can't he get along with people? Why does the demon Ego keep sabotaging his efforts to find transcendence? Why couldn't the casting director find a stunt double who matches up with the lanky Mechlowicz? These are deep and mysterious questions?

I would say that the director, Victor Salva, has never played team sports in his life. His workup of gymnastics team culture, of the relationship between jock and jock and jock and coach, is tone-deaf and clueless. These young men relate like bad actors in a high school production of "Waiting for Godot." Somehow, Salva manages to liken gymnasts (in his world tall and thin, not short and muscular) to football players. The boys work out without benefit of spotters or wire safety equipment; the coach never talks technique but barks at them like a Pop Warner coach who's actually an insurance salesman. Though filmed on the UC Berkeley campus, the athletic aspects of the film never get close to communicating major college athletic program. What they communicate is: low-budget filmmaking without benefit of any research.

In any event, one night, restless and dissatisfied, Dan goes out for a 3 a.m. run and jogs by a run-down gas station on the edge of campus (hard to believe) and its gruff owner-operator, who turns out to be Nick Nolte with his hair dyed white. Horror movie? I'd run like hell.

Instead, Dan chats the older fellow up and finds him a unique repository of the kind of wisdom a high school sophomore would find impressive. Dan quickly dubs him "Socrates" for his insights, which seem to run along the lines of "Are you really happy? Why do you do it if it doesn't make you happy?"

Well, you can see where this is going, as could all of us in the theater. Socrates, of course, stands for the principle of self-abnegation, of the wise suggestion to concentrate on the journey itself, not the goal. (Dan is obsessed with getting to the Olympics, winning a gold and luxuriating in the praise and love of others.) Sensei makes Little Grasshopper see that it is not what others see that is important, it is what the self sees.

Again I say: All this stuff is probably right. I believe that any spiritual system works if you believe in it, which is to say I believe in the belief and its power, not the system. It's just that the director, Salva, underscores his points with thunderous obviousness and manipulates us through ham-handed plot gambits: the big accident, the recovery, the anger, the secret recovery, the triumph at "the finals." Aghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

If you ever wondered what it looks like when someone slaps chalk on his hands in slow motion to the tune of 17 bass drums being pounded by angry gorillas, here's the movie for you. If you ever wondered what Nick Nolte looked like in a Clarence the Angel role, here's the movie for you. If you like watching a young actor like Scott Mechlowicz chew not merely the scenery but the gymnastics equipment, the wardrobe, the paint on the wall and the camera dolly, here's the movie for you. The glycerine tear budget alone must have been in the thousands!

Peaceful Warrior (120 minutes, at area theaters), rated PG-13 rated for psychological intensity, suicide attempts, tears, despair and uplift.

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