There’s a fine line between embracing something from another culture and making fun of it. “The Guru” attempts this delicate balance by, on the face of it (or at least according to the trailers), mining Bollywood — the Indian equivalent of Hollywood. If Bollywood is famous for one thing, it’s the elaborate song and dance numbers that seem to pop up spontaneously throughout a movie. Mind you, this doesn’t mean Bollywood has no other genre, but this is the one that most outsiders think of first.
Despite being the star of “The Guru”, Jimi Mistry gets third billing behind co-stars Heather Graham, as the love interest, and Marisa Tomei as, well, I don’t really know what Tomei’s character is. Mistry plays Ramu, an Indian dance instructor in India who dreams of coming to America and becoming a big star. When Ramu finally takes the leap, he discovers that the American Dream is better left to the realm of fantasy. Instead of landing a real movie role, Ramu ends up on a porno set, where he meets the wise Sharonna (Graham), a porn star engaged to a fireman who thinks she’s a substitute teacher.
When a swami at a rich party keels over from alcohol, Ramu steps into the role, and immediately becomes a big hit. Using Sharonna’s sage advice on love and sex (well mostly just sex), Ramu gets declared the Guru of Sex by filthy rich New York socialite Lexi (Tomei). Suddenly Ramu is in demand among the New York elite, and begins earning enough money to live his American fantasy. But there’s a problem: Ramu has to keep mining Sharonna for advice (but she doesn’t know he’s using her advices for the scam), and ends up, predictably, falling in love with her.
Don’t let the commercials for “The Guru” mislead you. There’s actually only three of those spontaneous song and dance numbers in the whole movie, and the third one occurs in the end over the closing credits. The first one, when Ramu breaks out into song and dance at Lexi’s party, is the best one because it’s unexpected. The second one, when Ramu fantasizes about Sharonna while watching a Bollywood movie, ends about 10 seconds after it starts. That 10 seconds, incidentally, is what keeps showing up in the trailer. It’s all a pack of lies, folks.
And therein lies the biggest disappointment with “The Guru.” Instead of giving us a lot of crowd-pleasing song and dance numbers, the film spends way too much time with the whiny Lexi, who is the epitome of the Pretentious New Yorker. She’s too rich for her own good and has too much free time that she doesn’t know what to do with it, so she decides to throw herself into promoting Ramu. Why? I don’t know. She claims to want to spread peace to the world. Or some such nonsense like that. Regardless, the character is beyond irritating, and is the type that gives Americans a bad name overseas.
The point is, “The Guru” is just painful to watch when it’s not breaking out into song and dance, and it only does that twice when it matters. Which leaves us with long stretches where we’re forced to endure the insanity that is the Lexi character. Beyond Lexi, there is the rest of the New York “elite” — which means, by writer Tracey Jackson’s standards, they’re all pretentious and stuck-up white people. The elite is best summed up by Christine Baranski, who plays Lexi’s mom. Baranski has made a career out of playing the same prissy rich white woman that she plays again in “The Guru.” (Imagine these are the people the world sees and immediately thinks “American.” No wonder Osama Bin Laden think we’re all a bunch of undeserving capitalist infidels.)
There’s not all that much about “The Guru” to like. It’s not all that funny, and most of the comedic moments comes at the expense of the movie. Meaning I laughed at the film rather than with it. Another problem is headliner Heather Graham (“Killing Me Softly”), who continues to just go downhill since her breakout turn in “Boogie Nights.” This is, I believe, the third role Graham has played where she is either a porn star or a hooker — and either way, her character is selling her body for money. What is it exactly about these roles that keeps hooking Graham? Or is she trying to tell us something?
I’m not quite sure how Indians will view this movie. It’s not as entertaining as any of the Bollywood films I’ve seen, that’s for sure. It’s as if writer Tracey Jackson and director Daisy von Scherler Mayer couldn’t make up their minds about what they wanted to do. Instead, we get a half-hearted attempt at Bollywood-style song and dance, only I don’t quite think one full number and a barely-there second number qualifies. All I can say is, either go all out or don’t, ladies.
In the end, “The Guru” seems like a great idea that suffered because of terrible execution. I can see the selling point to the movie: Bollywood, American-style! But I can’t help but wonder what must have happened between idea to screenplay to final cut.
Daisy von Scherler Mayer (director) / Tracey Jackson (screenplay)
CAST: Heather Graham …. Sharonna
Marisa Tomei …. Lexi
Jimi Mistry …. Ramu Gupta
Michael McKean …. Dwain
Dash Mihok …. Rusty
Emil Marwa …. Vijay