There are enough good scenes within the 94 minutes of The Guru to make an entertaining coming-attractions trailer. Wait, that's unfair. Such previews are only one minute long. It's simplistic and snarky to say there are only 60 seconds of fun to be found in this "Bollywood-meets-Hollywood" romantic comedy. I'm substituting attitude for intelligent film criticism. My apologies.
In truth, there are enough good scenes within the 94 minutes of The Guru to make an entertaining music video. The four-minute MTV format would better suit the promotional efforts of the film anyway, as its most engaging moments are the too-few musical numbers, in which the swirling energy and layered choreography of traditional Indian films are used to give the The Guru its only moments of energy.
Ironic, really, since the film fails to heed the advice of the guru himself, Ramu (Jimi Mistry), who in his first lines says you must "move your feet to the beat of your heart." Instead, it plods along, grounded to its paint-by-numbers storyline--Crocodile Dundee is Coming to America for a Big Fat Indian Wedding--occasionally giving the audience a maddening hint of the carefree, assured, ass-shaking fun that could have been had, even with Heather Graham in the lead. For a movie that clubs you repeatedly with its "be true to yourself" message, it sure does con itself.
As with many failures, The Guru begins promisingly. We see a bored, young Ramu growing up in New Dehli, nodding off as he suffers through a film with Indian dancers, song and dress. He sneaks into an adjoining theater and encounters his spiritual muse: a version of the "You're the One That I Want" scene from Grease. (Seeing the Hindi subtitles appear as John Travolta shrieks, "I got chills...!" is the biggest, perhaps only, laugh of the film's first 10 minutes.)
Ramu grows up believing all that is cool in the world can be found in music, movies and America. He leaves his job as a Macarena dance instructor to make it big in the States, where he is, of course, distraught that he must join his friend Vijay (Emil Marwa, winning and underused) as a waiter to make ends meet.
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Ramu's big break comes--or doesn't--when he's miscast in an X-rated flick opposite reluctant porn queen Sharonna (Heather Graham, her eyes perpetually glazed, and not because she's method acting). When Ramu wilts under the pressure, Graham shares her deep, insightful God-wants-us-to-ride-the-pony philosophy that plants the seed in Ramu's head. From there, through wacky happenstance, Ramu takes over for a passed-out "Guru" at a high-class party for Lexi (Marisa Tomei, hotter and better than Graham) and uses his newfound "insight" to win the rich young thang's affection. While Lexi uses her moneyed influence to make him the swami of sex in New York, Ramu continues to bug Sharonna for sensual advice that he can use to continue his charade. After an illicit kiss, a Broadway premiere, more Grease references (which only serve to remind us how uninspired this semi-musical is), an appearance on Sally Jessy Raphael (now broadcast live worldwide, apparently) and a race to the altar, everyone discovers that love conquers all, you win if you follow your heart, so be honest and be sure to hump before you get married.
To criticize The Guru for being mechanical seems too obvious: Most babies can't stand to ingest this much formula in a two-hour sitting. And it's not as though the film doesn't have its charms. Although the normally reliable Christine Baranski (Bowfinger) is annoying as Tomei's mother, much of the supporting cast (Michael McKean as an affably sleazy porn director, Dash Mihok as Sharonna's husband-to-be hiding a secret, Malachy McCourt as a Catholic priest who vaguely recognizes Sharonna) help give the sitcom-ish script what little life they can muster.
Executive producer Shekhar Kapur (who directed Elizabeth) says he based much of The Guru on his own experiences in London, when he fooled women into thinking he was a disciple of a great Tibetan ascetic. Perhaps there is a fun romantic comedy in that scenario, but it's not borne out here. It's not because he nor screenwriter Tracey Jackson held back, though. Actually, the film is so broad, it careens from one scene to the next with no sense of purpose, trying vainly to punch line its way through until hitting the hour-and-a-half mark. For a film that feels so slight, it's surprisingly overstuffed. It's filled with twice too many supporting characters (the porn gang is far more interesting than Tomei's rich crew and Ramu's poor posse). As a result, Mistry spends his time checking in with a half-dozen or more characters every few minutes, so no relationships ever have time to develop. It's why he and Graham have all the chemistry of a beaker full of Vanilla Coke. For all its narrative, the film never tells us why these people should care about each other, or us them.
It's not only dramas that can be courageous. A slight romantic comedy can have balls, too, if it embraces its own message, no matter how sappy or happy that may be. There are moments in The Guru, particularly the over-the-top dance numbers, that threaten to capture you, but then it quickly wimps back to its predictable boy-wins-girl ways, scared of its own flashes of uniqueness. True, as filmmakers, there are worse things they could do--but not many.