It’s a special kind of romantic comedy that successfully deals with a more important issue than a couple of Hollywood stars sleeping together. The Guru, in which Ramu Gupta (Jimi Mistry) spends equal time pining for an acting career and a glimpse at Heather Graham’s breasts, is not that movie. There’s a message in there somewhere — perhaps it’s the movie’s parody of American cultists, a joke made all the more explicit by Ramu’s accidental success at playing guru to dozens of rich New Yorkers. He’s a fraud from the very first moment he dons the turban at a dinner party where the previously scheduled swami has passed out drunk. It makes you wonder where Dr. Phil found his superhero costume.
The story itself of The Guru isn’t so bad, if you can stomach the treacly Lifetime moments in Ramu’s voyage of self-discovery as he ministers to the shallow sexual psyches of the Upper East Side. The Indian dance instructor leaves his native country for America and a job in the movies, excited beyond all reason at reuniting with his cousin, Vijay, who has struck it rich in the land of opportunity. When Ramu learns that Vijay’s tales of red Benzes and fat wallets are all lies, he mopes briefly before hitting the streets in search of work. He ends up in the clutches of porn producer Dwain (Michael McKean), who renames him Rammy, throws him in an island native outfit and tells him to get to work on his lead actress, Sharonna (Graham). Ramu just stands there, shocked and confused at what he’s gotten himself into (he thought it was a legit acting job), limp as a noodle.
Ramu comes off a little gay at first, but by the time he starts wearing eyeliner and turbans, his heterosexuality is assured thanks to his new sex tutor, Sharonna. She’s got problems of her own — doesn’t mind working in porn, but can’t let her firefighter boyfriend find out she’s not a prim Catholic schoolteacher — and when Ramu shows up on her doorstep asking for acting advice, she takes his wang under her wing.
It’s Sharonna’s personal views on human sexuality that Ramu spouts to the wealthy folk when put on the spot the night of his unexpected guru initiation, and her great insights into how to improve one’s sex life lead the dinner party crowd to dub him the “Swami of Sex.”
Bored rich girl fad-follower Lexi (Marisa Tomei) drops her obsession with Buddhism and becomes Ramu’s lover and manager in the downtime between her histrionic fits, booking him into the living rooms of frigid Park Avenue. Ramu feels bad about milking Sharonna for every last drop of wisdom, but when the money starts rolling in he pushes his guilt into a box and locks it. It’s hard to stop once you’re finally closing in on that Mercedes.
Mistry does an adequate job of handling Ramu’s sometimes bewildering immigrant innocence, but he’s no star. The Guru is second-rate cast all the way, completely appropriate for a second-rate film. Graham is also in wide-eyed mode, in touch with her emotions yet blind to what’s really going on around her. Sharonna makes for a vaguely interesting bookend to Graham’s previous foray into the business of skin in Boogie Nights. While Roller Girl barely said a word in the latter, Sharonna is verbose enough that the two characters probably average out to a normal amount of dialogue.
It could be argued that The Guru is really about artifice and the easy belief in false prophets, but a better movie would make argument unnecessary. Ramu, who wants so badly to be the star of the show, finds that it’s not so much fun to be the man behind the curtain. It’s stressful and only a matter of time before he tires of his act.
But it’s hard to believe that The Guru is that well stocked with subtext, or that it’s an allegory for anything when it’s by the book in so many other ways. The story ends in a church with a wedding and the usual happy-ending accoutrements of the romantic comedy — which translates into The Guru being anything but assured of the weighty legitimacy it probably isn’t even seeking.
Erin Podolsky writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.