Making fun of its own light comedy clichés (like its must- stop- the- girl- from- marrying- the- wrong- guy finale) could have added an extra layer of laughs to a movie like "The Guru" -- if it wasn't entirely dependent on those same clichés to drive its plot.
Amiable, boy-faced Indian actor Jimi Mistry (seen in the imports "East is East" and "The Mystic Masseur") plays an enthusiastic immigrant named Ramu Gupta who comes to America with wide-eyed dreams of stardom, born of his jones for the movie musical "Grease." But through a series of screwball misunderstandings, he's soon being celebrated by Manhattan's trendy elite as "the Guru of Sex" -- a spiritual healer who tells the people what they want to hear: nookie makes good therapy.
Ramu gets all the sexual philosophy that's making him famous (he's soon appearing on "Sally Jesse Raphael") from a good-hearted porno actress (Heather Graham) he met when he mistakenly wandered into the wrong kind of audition. But in one of those ham-fisted movie mix-ups that could be corrected with a single line of dialogue, she thinks she's advising him on how to overcome performance anxiety and become an X-rated stud, and therefore shares her innermost sexual secrets.
Of course they start to fall in love, causing much dismay for Graham since she's engaged to a religious, muscle-bound lug who thinks she's a schoolteacher -- and a virgin. Of course, when she finds out Ramu is using her confidential advice to get famous, things turn predictably sour before last-reel apologies lead to happy endings.
But director Daisy von Scherler Mayer ("Party Girl") balances out most of these genuinely stupid plot turns by employing an equal number of delightfully stupid ones -- like the fact that characters are liable at any point to break into tongue-in-cheek, Bollywood-style song-and-dance numbers. Or songs from "Grease." Or sometimes both at once.
Ramu's first try at swami-dom takes place when he's helping cater the birthday party of a desperately neurotic socialite (Marisa Tomei), who becomes his first and most dedicated (read: dependent) disciple. The real not-so-holy man hired for the event passes out drunk, so Ramu steps in, soon leading the party's stuffed shirts in a conga-line version of "The Macarena" that Tomei convinces herself is "one of those whirling dervish spiritual things."
Tomei is the movie's scene-stealer, her plucky comic timing outshining (but not upstaging) Mistry, who is funny but overly wholesome, and Graham, who brings a rather generic object-of-desire quality to what should be an anything-but-ordinary character.
"The Guru" has plenty of good laughs, and often its cheesiness is an intentional nod to the assembly-line musicals of Mistry's native Indian film industry. But the fact remains that much of the story relies on trite plot devices, and freely acknowledging such devices ("Haven't you seen any American movies?" says Ramu on the way to stop Graham's wedding. "It happens all the time!") doesn't forgive using them like a crutch.
Run time: 94 mins
In Theaters: Friday 14th February 2003
Box Office USA: $2.9M
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Production compaines: Universal Pictures, Studio Canal
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 57%
Fresh: 50 Rotten: 37
IMDB: 5.4 / 10
Director: Daisy von Scherler Mayer
Starring: Jimi Mistry as Ramu Gupta, Heather Graham as Sharonna, Marisa Tomei as Lexi, Michael McKean as Dwain, Dash Mihok as Rusty McGee, Emil Marwa as Vijay Rao, Christine Baranski as Chantal, Ronald Guttman as Edwin