'Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru': Film Review

Courtesy of SXSW
Uncritical observation succumbs to its subject's charisma.
7/15/2016

After going to a Tony Robbins seminar himself, Joe Berlinger comes back with his cameras.

A surprisingly uncritical doc from a filmmaker whose rep is built on skeptical investigation, Joe Berlinger's Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru doesn't seem to know whether its title is ironic or not. Chronicling one of the famed motivational speaker's six-day "Date With Destiny" events, the doc offers so many scenes of epiphany and so little follow-up one expects to see a pre-credits tag urging "To buy your own breakthrough, call 1-800-BIG-GURU." The speaker's renown will attract attention, especially on small screens, but the market for a harder look at Robbins — who last month made news with a coal-walk challenge that left dozens of participants burned — remains wide open.

Berlinger has been forthcoming about his personal history with Robbins: Having reluctantly attended one of his seminars, only to be won over by its emotional power, he urged Robbins to let him film a later event. Whatever agreement filmmaker and subject may have made in order to secure access, Guru winds up being a straight performance movie: Rather than adding interviews with third parties to flesh out its understanding of what Robbins does, or talking to people who took a class years ago to see if their "transformations" lasted more than a few weeks, it stays in the present tense: Filming what happens in and around the Boca Raton facility where thousands of people have paid around $5,000 each to have a stranger peer into their souls and say the things that will fix them.

The film follows Robbins off-stage, where he touches briefly on his childhood and motivations. Describing himself as "a practical psychologist" who can tell whether interviewees are telling the truth by reading their body language, he gives every sign of being sincere in his belief that he is changing lives for the better. If he becomes obscenely rich in the process, so be it.

Some of the intense encounters we witness — where a volunteer stands to be examined while fellow attendees listen raptly — reveal real depths of suffering. Others revolve around the kind of mundane self-inflicted wounds often described as First-World Problems. Robbins doles out heaps of tough-love compassion to one and all. (Though it's interesting to note how many of the chosen interviewees just happen to be pretty young women.)

Much of what he says is wise. But some is not so kind to people outside this room: When he decides that a woman he's speaking to would be better off without her boyfriend, he all but forces her to pick up her phone and break up with him in front of the whole crowd. Does Robbins give a specialized seminar for people who've been dumped while 2,000 people watched?

Distributor: Netflix
Production companies: RadicalMedia, Third Eye Motion Picture Company
Director: Joe Berlinger

Producers: Joe Berlinger, Lisa Gray, Kevin Huffman
Executive producers: Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Jon Kamen, Frank Scherma, Justin Wilkes, Lisa Nishimura, Adam Del Leo
Director of photography: Robert Richman
Editors: Cy Christiansen, Brett Mason
Composer: Wendy Blackstone

Not rated, 115 minutes.

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