There are good movies. There are bad movies. There are movies so bad they’re good (though, strangely, not the reverse). And once in a while there is a movie so bad that it takes you to a place beyond good and evil and abandons you there, shivering and alone. Watching The Love Guru (Paramount Pictures) is a spiritual experience of a sort, but not the sort that its creator and star, Mike Myers, intended. This tale of a guru who brings joy to all who meet him is the most joy-draining 88 minutes I’ve ever spent outside a hospital waiting room. In the course of those long minutes, Myers leads you on a journey deep inside himself, to the source from whence his comedy springs—and it’s about as much fun as a tour of someone’s large intestine.
Myers has long specialized in characters who are victims of arrested development: from Austin Powers emerging from his 30-year deep-freeze, to the fully grown Wayne Campbell broadcasting his cable-access show from his parents’ basement, to Simon, the child who does “drawerings” in his bathtub while admonishing the audience, “Don’t look at my bum!” As the host of the MTV Movie Awards earlier this month, Myers did a whole sketch that revolved around the ability of his character, an animal wrangler, to distinguish different species by eating their poop. But in The Love Guru, Myers isn’t just mining the comic potential of regression: He’s regressing on-screen before our very eyes.
Guru Pitka is a Canadian-born, Indian-raised spiritual master who lives on a glitzy L.A. ashram and writes self-help books with titles like If It Hurts When You Do That, Stop Doing That and I Know You Are, But What Am I?. When he isn’t resenting Deepak Chopra’s fame or covering Dolly Parton songs on the sitar, Pitka gives mumbo-jumbo PowerPoint lectures to celebrities like Val Kilmer, Mariska Hargitay, and Chopra himself, all of whom appear in stiff cameos. Pitka’s lifelong dream is to appear on Oprah, a goal that his agent (The Daily Show’s John Oliver) swears is within his grasp if he can just help out Darren Roanoke (the chronically underemployed Romany Malco), the star hockey player for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Darren’s game hasn’t been the same since his wife (Meagan Good) left him for his superendowed Quebecois rival Jacques “Le Coq” Grande (Justin Timberlake in a perm and a codpiece). So Pitka coaches Darren in the discipline of self-love (unlike nearly every line in this film, that’s not meant as a dirty joke) while falling for the team’s beautiful yet supremely boring owner, Jane Bullard (Jessica Alba).
However puerile the Austin Powers movies became, the character himself remained an inspired creation built from the ground up out of an internally consistent set of traits (lechery, dandyism, and a firm belief in his own fabulousness). But Guru Pitka makes no sense—one minute he’s a cretinous dolt who’s never seen a corn dog before, the next he’s delivering double entendres with a clever wink. He swings between vainglory and ravenous insecurity in a way that seems uncomfortably autobiographical. Mostly, though, Pitka is a leering boor whom the other characters treat, mystifyingly, as a guileless charmer. I soon lost count of the number of scenes in which someone—usually the hapless Alba—chuckled indulgently at Pitka’s lewd patter while the movie audience sat in painful silence.
It’s difficult to get across just how unfunny the jokes in The Love Guru are. There’s one gag (“What’s the capital of Thailand?”) that I remember from a party in junior high school—I didn’t laugh then, either. Some of the lowest moments involve Sir Ben Kingsley, who appears as Pitka’s mentor, the permanently cross-eyed Guru Tugginmypudha. I’ve read that Kingsley, who was made a knight of the realm in 2001, often alienates the English press by insisting on the usage of his full title, even in casual social situations. If he’s that concerned about maintaining his dignity, he might reconsider taking on roles in which people swordfight with mops soaked in their own piss.
Myers has been absent from the screen (except for his voice work in the last two Shrek movies) since 2003. The Love Guru grew out of what he’s described as a period of introspection in his own life following his divorce and his father’s death. It’s also entirely his baby: Myers hired a first-time director, Marco Schnabel; co-wrote the screenplay; and shepherded the project from beginning to end. Though the sketch-based comedy that Myers rode to box-office glory has been supplanted of late by the more realistic Apatow style, Myers’ characters can make you laugh—as this week’s “best of Mike Myers” tribute on NBC was no doubt meant to remind us. But The Love Guru is proof that sometimes external constraints and collaboration can serve a performer better than unchecked artistic freedom. Consider the uncomfortably prescient sight gag near the beginning of the film that illustrates Guru Pitka’s yogic flexibility—he can even get his head up his own ass.