Film Review: Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru

The title is a crock, unless the über-controlling Robbins would rather be referred to as your dictator.
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Move over Elmer Gantry, Aimee Semple McPherson, and even the Dalai Lama. There’s a new Messiah in town, Tony Robbins, serving a heaping helping of New Age snake oil that actually seems to work for sizeable numbers of troubled folk. Actually, this big-group self-styled therapist has been around for decades, serving life answers and solutions to the confused, depressed and downright suicidal with sufficiently deep pockets to afford the $5,000 registration fee for his week-long seminars. Through his international workshops, the insanely successful Robbins preaches to some 200,000 people a year.

This doc is largely an unquestioning love letter to this towering, burly, rough-spoken choirmaster, by director/producer Joe Berlinger, a grateful member of his chorus, who obviously was very happy with his own Robbins experience. Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru takes place in a hotel in Boca Raton, Florida, where Robbins and his large team of assistants have commandeered the place for his annual “Date with Destiny,” wherein some 2,500 gather together seeking instant enlightenment. The highlight of the seminar is Robbins’ personal appearance for interventions with various enrollees, they describing their deepest personal woes while he smacks some sense and tough love into them, using the roughest, drill sergeant language, as f-bombs fly in the air to the shock and delight of his mostly white (and Asian) spellbound followers, as well as fawning celebrity attendees Julianne and Derek Hough.

These sequences are the highlight of the doc as well, however much you may question Robbins’ approach to fixing their lives, a seeming matter of snap judgment and a call for immediate action, stemming from his supposedly infallible instant read of a person and his or her individual dilemma. He calls a frightened young girl’s adored but intimidating father an “asshole” and helps her get out from under his scary shadow. One woman’s brief description of her relationship has him quickly exhorting her to call her partner then and there and break up with him, to the assembled crowd’s delight. Somehow, you can’t help feeling for the poor guy, being blindsided in public like this, and don’t wonder that he abruptly hangs up on her. (By the way, it is later stated that they’re still together.)

The movie’s big dramatic “get” occurs when a woman describes being raised among the Children of God, a religious sect that horrifically involved free-for-all sex within its congregation, from the earliest age. The scars of this nightmare have made her suicidal, while pretending to be a rock of strength for other survivors of that experience, and unable to know or find love. As the entre audience sobs, Robbins seizes the chance to seize her and give her a prolonged bear hug, then follows this with an impromptu sort of “Dating Game,” when he has her randomly choose three men from the crowd whose eyes are kind enough to make them her ‘”uncles” for life, with her safekeeping top priority for each of them.

What is off-putting is the ubiquitous, “apropos” use of pop songs—like Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer”—thundering from speakers, cheesily signaling the orgasmically triumphant denouement of Robbins once more “curing” a person’s ills for life. It adds a pushy, overproduced and bogus veneer to everything, which will definitely not help the skeptical become believers. This tackiness is matched by the intro to these interventions, which has an irritating, self-inflating Rocky quality to it, with Robbins—not the most physically coordinated of men—spinning about as he gets into his “zone,” and then leading his noisy, blissed-out congregation in hands-in-the-air waving and the inescapable fist-pumping, as you think, “Who the hell are these yuppie fools?”

Apart from some vanity views of Robbins’ lavish, hideously decorated mansion and the revelation of an abusive, alcoholic mother, very little is vouchsafed about his personal life or background, not to mention his borrowings from that notorious 1970s movement of self-awareness, EST. There is also no mention of the infamous fire walk to unleash inner power, which had the faithful literally walking—or hopping—across smolderingly hot coals, a practice which shot him to stardom. Uncharacteristically, this spotlight-grabbing alpha dog says this is all to the good, as it really isn’t about him so much as his admittedly compulsive mission of helping people. But this viewer found the statement ingenuous, as the entire film is about him, and the lack of such information a clear weakness in what amounts to little more than a lengthy promotional test drive into touchy-feely-healy Robbins-land.

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