Opiate of the people
Mean-spirited Guru offers a facile antidote to cynicism
It’s the kind of half-cocked story only a Hollywood executive living in the midst of pretense, piety and crackpot fads could love.
The Guru is a film about virtue and spirituality as a racket and a put-on. In the film’s dumb, bargain-basement brand of cynicism, Catholic priests are closet porn fans, an X-rated movie star pretends she’s a virgin for her clean-cut boyfriend’s sake and a down-on-his-luck Indian actor rakes in the dough by pretending to be a religious guru.
There is something to The Guru’s parody of Deepak Chopra-style “spirituality chic” where Upper East Side matrons pay thousands to be told how depressed they are. But there is also something nasty and dismissive about a film that topples every notion of spirituality as a sham, and then trumpets its own paper-thin, sloppy love story as some antidote to all that deceit.
Ramu Gupta (Jimi Mistry) is an Indian dance instructor who comes to America to seek his fortune as an actor and is instead soon sleeping shoulder-to-shoulder with his fellow cab drivers and waiters in a minuscule New York apartment. Through one of those elaborate mistakes that fuels this brand of featherweight comedy, Ramu winds up unknowingly auditioning for a porn film and meeting a sweet-tempered porn star, Sharonna (Heather Graham). Sharonna tenderly instructs him, like Annie Sprinkle in a beauty queen’s body, on how to “get wood” when his first shoot is a limp disaster.
Ramu has better luck that evening. The same restaurant boss who has just fired Ramu asks him to fill in for a drunken swami at a party being given for the spoiled heiress Lexi (Marisa Tomei). She wanted a Tibetan monk, but her rich-bitch mama (Christine Baranski recycling her usual “Ab Fab”-brand shtick) gives her an Indian Swami instead. Ramu turns out to be a better spiritual leader than porn stud and begins an elaborate ruse posing as New York’s popular Guru of Sex while receiving his philosophical instruction from Sharonna.
Just recounting the plotline for The Guru begs the question of how anything this dopey, despite its certain resonance in shim-sham Hollywood, made the jump from writer’s pen to movie executive’s desk. The Guru is itself pretty phony: a classic American screwball comedy whose innards have been removed and replaced with every nasty stereotype about women, Indians and gay men. Screenwriter Tracey Jackson’s obnoxious script is larded with every tired romantic comedy will-they-or-won’t-they-get-together cliche and inevitable “insights,” such as the one about outsiders like Ramu being the only ones who can enlighten us about our own bogus spiritual quests.
The only moments worth waking up for in The Guru are the silly, riotous Bollywood-inspired dance fantasies like the one where swami Ramu inspires a townhouse full of Upper East Side swells to prance and dance around the living room in a charming spirit of unaffected giddiness.
It may have been the promise of a postmodern Moulin Rouge-style musical that lured Graham and Tomei to the film. Those pleasurably daffy dance numbers are the only time the two can shuck off the wide-eyed dingbat garb and really revel in the kind of fun that isn’t designed to make women look like phonies and sluts. Only Graham, with those enormous saucers of earnest blue eyes, could be convincing as a porn star with a heart of gold, though that ability doesn’t mean she should play that part ad infinitum. When she speaks, even about “coming,” it’s like a cool breeze whistling through a wheat field in Kansas. Graham is as luscious as ever, the all-American embodiment of oxymoronic purity and carnality: an improbable vision of a wholesome porn star.
Director Daisy von Scherler Mayer’s loopy 1995 debut Party Girl, about an irrepressible Holly Golightly downtown girl, had The Guru’s marshmallow flightiness, but here downtown fun has been replaced by a vulgar, mean-spirited brand of comedy.