A gaudy, raucous romp, "The Guru" tracks the misadventures of an Indian actor who travels to an America where Bollywood meets Hollywood by way of the Macarena. Directed by Daisy von Scherler Mayer and written by Tracey Jackson, the silliness begins percolating in Delhi, India, with a dance instructor named Ramu (Jimi Mistry) corralling a roomful of matrons swathed in saris the color of saffron and green apple.
Knitting together his expressively shaggy eyebrows, he explains how today's class will be his last because he's leaving for America. With a quizzical look one of the women asks, "You going to drive a cab?" "No," says Ramu, summoning up uncommon dignity for a man wearing a headband and a sleeveless tee. "I'm going to be a star!"
Cinderella comes in numerous guises and here he arrives in the person of a naif whose image of America has been nurtured by a lifelong romance with our movies. After he arrives in New York City, however, Ramu quickly discovers that this country often looks better on the big screen. Instead of the penthouse promised by his friend (Emil Marwa), he lands in Queens, where he soon begins serving curry to lunchtime louts. Determined to be a star, Ramu perseveres and through a vivacious audition (set to "Old Time Rock and Roll," in Hindi) he ends up wearing a peekaboo grass skirt opposite adult-movie legend Sharrona (Heather Graham). Because coincidence is the fulcrum of comedy, Ramu subsequently meets a socialite, Lexi (Marisa Tomei), who ushers him down another path, this one lined with lotus petals, hard-core pragmatism and cash. Exit a waiter; enter a sex guru.
Calibrated to please, "The Guru" is a down-market but enjoyable goof. It's also not as dumb as it looks. The filmmakers aren't interested in subverting cliches, just tweaking them. Central to the movie's charm is how it knowingly taps into two of our more cherished mythologies -- inevitable true love and immigrant triumphalism -- but always at an oblique angle. One of the girls, after all, earns her keep performing in X-rated movies and seems no worse for wear, while the other is a Park Avenue seeker who can't tell Vishnu from Kali. The boy, meanwhile, is a subcontinent native who's landed in this country with the belief that nothing can thwart his American dream, not class, ethnicity or the fact that the only Indian star he knows of is Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the Kwik-E-Mart owner on "The Simpsons."
Ramu has the exuberance of the newly landed, and the naivete. Even when he blunders into the office of a blue-movie impresario (Michael McKean), he doesn't know enough to recognize defeat. Mistry, who stood out in the British comedy "East Is East," embraces Ramu's innocence, never letting irony hijack the character. As the rest of the cast goes broad, then broader (as usual, Christine Baranski can do no wrong), Mistry makes the comedy work by playing it straight.
In this he complements Graham, who glides through the movie with the same steamy purity she brought to "Boogie Nights," if dressed in somewhat more clothes. Is it an insult to say that some actresses were born to play porn stars? Graham doesn't have range, but her apparent indifference to her killer looks makes her a classic object of desire. Like the 1950s pinup Betty Page, she comes across like the girl next door even when snapping a whip.
Much as Sharrona only flirts with the far-out, "The Guru" turns out to be just a flirtation with the musical rather than a full-on embrace. That's a shame because the musical interludes are where the film wears its heart and finds its soul. Although they don't approach the delirium or beauty of the best of Bollywood (or Hollywood), the handful of numbers get at the core joy of what it means when everyone in a room -- young, old, knock-kneed -- breaks into song and dance. One of the ineffable pleasures of musicals is their utopianism. No matter how dark the book or cynical the lyrics, the musical comes with the promise that it really is possible for people who don't necessarily agree or understand one another to find harmony. It may be a fantasy, but like Ramu's pursuit of life, liberty and beautiful women, it can be hard to resist.
MPAA rating: R, for strong sexual content including dialogue, and for language
Times guidelines: vulgar language, partial nudity and some suggestive pantomime
Universal Pictures and Studiocanal present a Working Title production, released by Universal Pictures. Director Daisy von Scherler Mayer. Writer Tracey Jackson. Producers Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Michael London. Director of photography John de Borman. Production designers Robin Standefer, Stephen Alesch. Editors Cara Silverman, Bruce Green. Costume designer Michael Clancy. Music supervisors Dawn Soler, Nick Angel. Music David Carbonara. Casting Laura Rosenthal, Ali Farrell. Running time, 1 hour, 31 minutes. In general release.