Reviewers are accustomed to invoking the epithet "groaner" any time a movie proves enervating enough to make a less sedentary profession seem desirable. However, it's the rare stiff that provokes literal groans from a paying audience.

But "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence" caught it with a jolly vengeance when unveiled recently at the Dupont Circle for an overflow preview audience, presumably lured by the novelty of seeing David Bowie in a traditional heroic role--as a gallant British POW defying Japanese captors. The echoes of that vocal disillusionment should haunt "Mr. Lawrence" during its regular commercial engagements, which began yesterday.

The impromptu concert of groans was inspired by director Nagisa Oshima's apparent inability to wind up a story that had grown burdensome long before a denouement could be glimpsed. Once, twice, three times the audience leaped to the conclusion that the picture had mercifully faded to black, only to see another sequence light up and then belabor the prevailing relativistic themes--that military prisoners and jailers are much alike in certain respects; that no culture has a monopoly on cruelty or virtue; that it's wrong to assume you're in the right, and that, everything considered, the antagonists in World War II should have taken the long view and patched things up in the spirit of "no harm, no foul" because men are really brothers under the skin.

The story is supposed to take place in a prison camp on Java in 1942, but it's saturated with stale retrospective wisdom and tolerance. The movie is based on a novel by the British writer Sir Laurens Van Der Post, who was actually in a Japanese POW camp during the war, but its sense of the present tense keeps slipping away, often because Oshima is inclined to view everything from such remote vantage points that the potential conflicts get lost.

The title refers to the character played by Tom Conti, quietly stalwart in a performance that would probably seem irresistibly noble and sensitive in a less sluggish picture. Col. John Lawrence, a former British diplomat who served in Tokyo, is obliged to mediate between stubborn figures of authority: on his own side, Jack Thompson as a gruff, resentful regular army type, and on the other, Ryuichi Sakamoto (like Bowie, a pop music idol cast against his pop image) as the austere young camp commandant, Capt. Yonoi, and Takeshi (a popular comedian in Japan) as Sgt. Hara, an earthy and sometimes amiable brute who serves as principal enforcer of camp discipline.

Bowie's character, Maj. Celliers, is a dashing New Zealander who has surrendered after leading a small guerrilla operation. His arrival in camp is meant to be disruptive not so much for what he does--Celliers doesn't organize a daring escape attempt or anything similarly impressive and photogenic--as what he suggests. Officially speaking, the Japanese are supposed to feel so threatened by his mischievous, sarcastic gallantry that they resolve to crush it, but the subtext plainly implies that poor Yonoi is infatuated with Celliers and loses more face than he can afford when the prisoner calls attention to this bent.

While it's the submerged homoerotic element that seems to cause the decisive conflicts, rather than anything as mundane as racial, national or soldierly enmity, you couldn't describe it as a very active or gripping substitute for the traditional hassles. In fact, "Mr. Lawrence" may not have enough happening on the surface because Oshima imagines he's suggesting ever so much below the surface. The movie never gets untracked dramatically, and when it's unwary enough to backtrack in an acutely mawkish way, inserting two prolonged flashbacks about Celliers' feelings of guilt for having failed his handicapped little brother, the prison camp setting fades even further into immateriality. The ideal title might have been "Brother, Where Art Thou?" Any hopes Bowie had of becoming an action hero come to grief in the plot's maundering sorrowfulness.

Once the willing suspension of disbelief crumbles, the whole setup begins to seem a ludicrous charade of stark wartime reality. Yonoi's very youth makes you wonder what he's doing mismanaging this camp. Surely he'd be more useful leading a suicide mission. Sakamoto's English dialogue is almost always garbled, and when Oshima sets up shop a mile from the actors, there's no way to comprehend Sakamoto. Alternately furious and ineffectual, the Japanese seem to be staging poor theatrics rather than running a prison compound. Maybe that's the key! Could Yonoi and his staff be a provincial theatrical troupe stuck with guard duty in Java?