Love Guru: Transcendent ... Not!

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One day I might attain the fifth level of verklemptitude

Mike Myers' signature shtick is the grin and shrug of a little boy who's just said something naughty or possibly made fart bubbles in the bathtub, and who relies on charm to get away with it. He used it on Saturday Night Live as young Simon, of course, and as basement TV host Wayne Campbell, and once or twice as Linda Richman. Austin Powers occasionally flashed that someone-stop-me grin through his misshapen English teeth. (Dieter the German performance artist and Shrek, not so much.) The Cat in the Hat was nothing but irritating-ingratiating impishness. And for the longest time — it's nearly two decades since he joined SNL — when Myers smiled, audiences smiled back. They were his co-conspirators in preadolescent aggression.

That may change this weekend with the debut of The Love Guru, Myers' first time on screen since 2003. The headlines of early reviews are the sort that give publicists migraines: "Sheer Self-Indulgence," "No Enlightenment, Few Laughs," "Lame Self-Help Romp" and "Guru Is Doo-Doo." About the only encouraging words so far are from Indian and Indian-American journalists, who had been primed to hate the movie from advance reports that its treatment of Hindu and Hindu-esque teacher-preachers — especially of the best-selling, evangelistic, Deepak Chopra variety — would be derisory. Those reviewers are saying, basically, that The Love Guru is not as awful as they thought it would be.

That's where I am, though not for religious reasons. Mostly I'm in synch with the Myers character: Maurice Pitka, a goofy innocent who loves potty humor but has a generous heart. He's not far from Adam Sandler's Zohan, another sweet soul with a few personality defects. A North American kid raised in India, Maurice at 13 came under the tutelage of a cross-eyed swami (Ben Kingsley, giving the goose to his Oscar-winning Gandhi). "I want to become a guru so people will like me," young Maurice tells his master, "so I will love myself." I find such self-knowledge, not to mention self-absorption, appealing in the nakedness of its need.

Soon Maurice is an adult in L.A., a hit on the lecture circuit and the author of such popular tomes as If You're Happy and You Think It, Think Again and Stop Hitting Yourself. Stop Hitting Yourself. Why Are You Still Hitting Yourself? Pitka is famous, but, he thinks, not famous enough. Rather like the Sean Penn guitarist in Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown, who realizes he's no Django Reinhardt, Pitka rankles at being No. 2 to Chopra. His manager (John Oliver of The Daily Show) convinces him that he can get on Oprah if he can just restore the frayed marriage of Darren Roanoke (Romany Malko), a Toronto Maple Leafs star whose wife is having an affair with banana-schlonged goalie Jacques "Le Coq" Grande (Justin Timberlake). This brings him in contact with Maple Leafs owner Jane Bullard (Jessica Alba).

I acknowledge that the movie's stabs at wit are not so much sophomoric as freshmanic. In his Indo-American accent, Pitka asks Darren, "What is it you cahn't face?" (cahn't rhyming with hunt — your kids will explain the joke to you). And even at 80 minutes or so, The Love Guru is overly long and repetitious, unable to sustain its comic conceit.

You'll recognize this failing in movies with other graduates of SNL. Trained at the Second City improv company, blossoming on late-night TV, they created or inhabited recurring characters who had five minutes to establish themselves. Even the most amusing of these characters, if they were to be expanded, were suited more to half-hour sitcoms than to feature films. But that's where the Blues Brothers, the Coneheads, Stuart Smalley, Pat, Mary Katherine Gallagher and the Roxbury guys went, not always justifying their films' running time. Leaving SNL for movies means you can't go back, which deprives the show of some brilliant sketch talent — Dan Aykroyd, Joe Piscopo, Martin Short, Molly Shannon, Dinitra Vance, the irreplaceable Phil Hartman — and consigns those actors to movies and TV shows that don't show them off to their best advantage.

Wayne's World was one of the few SNL movie spin-offs that worked. It set Myers on a mostly successful Hollywood career, whose strangest entry, the indie 54 (in which he played Studio 54 co-owner Steve Rubell), was also the most promising. But Myers didn't do any other dramatic parts, maybe because so much money was thrown his way to keep reprising Austin Powers and Shrek. And it's taken him longer and longer to devise new characters. Pitka is his first in movies since Austin Powers (and Dr. Evil) in 1997.

I like parts of The Love Guru because they sometimes take the form of an Indian musical, with Myers' sitar strumming becoming the bass line for the Dolly Parton song 9 to 5 and he and co-star Alba giving their all to a Bollywood-style dance number. I approve of the opening narration in the stately tones of Morgan Freeman, which turns out to be Myers speaking into a "voice-over box" set on the "Morgan Freeman" key. And I'm a big fan of Timberlake's farce skills; he shows here that he has a future in movies, at least as the guy who can upstage the star comic. (Other guest stars either show up fleetingly, like Jessica Simpson, Kanye West, NHL star Rob Blake and Chopra himself, or are used to ill effect, like Stephen Colbert as a hockey announcer.)

So, as much as I'd like to, I cahn't join the chorus of critical contumely. The Love Guru is a shambling, hit-or-miss thing, like an old Laurel and Hardy two-reeler. And like the situations those comics often got into, this movie is a fine mess.