The American Dream, Manhattan-masala style, proves a double-edged sword in "The Guru," a generally entertaining but rather old-fashioned romantic comedy in which an Indian dance instructor finds exoticism his most marketable tool.

The American Dream, Manhattan-masala style, proves a double-edged sword in “The Guru,” a generally entertaining but rather old-fashioned romantic comedy in which an Indian dance instructor finds exoticism his most marketable tool. With heavy promotion, pic could prove a reasonable summer attraction in the U.K., where it opens Aug. 23 after preeming at the Edinburgh fest. However, its strongly U.S. attitudes toward cross-culturalism may not strike the same chords with locals and the Indian Diaspora that made “Bend It Like Beckham” such a hit in Blighty. Chances Stateside, where opening date has not yet been set, look moderately spicy.

Up-and-coming Brit thesp Jimi Mistry (“East Is East,” “The Mystic Masseur”) plays Ramu, who grew up in India shuttling between Bollywood and U.S. musicals at his local movie theater. Closing down his dance class, Ramu fulfills his dream of going to New York, where he ends up in the less-than-glamorous apartment of relatives and working in an Indian restaurant.

After insulting a customer, he quits, and, still with stars in his eyes, auditions at a sleazy film production outfit, Ramrod Prods., run by Dwain (Michael McKean), who is more interested in finding a well-endowed male lead for his latest porn production, “Guess Who’s Coming at Dinner,” than the next Tom Cruise.

Cast opposite Ramrod starlet Sharonna (Heather Graham), but unable to show enough, uh, commitment, Ramu is peremptorily fired. Jobless and increasingly desperate, he shows up at a party catered by his relatives for a socialite family, whose fruitcake daughter, Lexi (Marisa Tomei), is hooked on New Age meditation. When the booked attraction passes out, Ramu is hurriedly convinced by his rellies to stand in for the sozzled swami.

In one of the movie’s few genuinely inspired moments, Ramu improvises with a faux-Bollywood musical number, leading the assembled toffs round the swanky apartment. And before you can say “nirvana,” the ingenuous Ramu and nutty Lexi are getting it on most unphilosophically.

In short order, Ramu finds himself not only with an agent, Josh (Rob Morrow), who ballyhoos him as the New Thing, but also slowly falling for Sharonna — and vice versa.With its basic plot of a naive Indian stumbling through white U.S. society, the movie shows little advance in attitudes and humor on Blake Edwards’ 1968 comedy “The Party,” with Peter Sellers as an Indian film extra hoodwinking his trend-obsessed hosts. Aside from the handful of Ramu’s relatives (all at the bottom of the social scale), there’s no backgrounding of either Ramu or American-Indian society in the way that British crossover pics like “East Is East” or “Beckham” detailed their main characters’ world.

It’s typical of the whole movie that the running joke in Tracey Jackson’s script is Ramu always being mistaken for the hired help or a delivery boy. The pic’s finale, which mixes a rapid subplot with another faux-Bollywood number, gives as bad a name to cross-culturalism as “Chop Suey” in “Flower Drum Song.”

Funniest sections are pure situational comedy (as when Ramu is caught in Sharonna’s apartment by her boyfriend) or in the porno movie sequences, with their punning titles.

Given that most of the pic’s target aud will never have seen a genuine Bollywood movie, it matters little that Mary Ann Kellogg’s choreography of the musical numbers and the direction by Daisy von Scherler Mayer (“Party Girl,” “Madeline”) lack authenticity. (Pic is not even widescreen, for starters.) Still, musical numbers are catchy enough on their own terms and performed spiritedly by cast and extras.

Supports are generally more strongly etched than the leads, with Christine Baranski, McKean and Morrow memorable. Tomei is OK as the spacey Lexi, but suffers from an underwritten role, while Graham — surprisingly — doesn’t really convince as a nice girl moonlighting in adult movies; she handles her lines solidly enough, but can’t match Mistry’s sheer charm that carries him through his cardboard role.

Technical credits are solid, and New York locations well used, though von Scherler Mayer’s direction is no more than competent.

The Guru

U.K.-U.S.-France

Production

A UIP release (in U.K.)/Universal (in U.S.) of a Universal Pictures/StudioCanal presentation of a Working Title production. Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Michael London. Executive producers, Shekhar Kapur, Liza Chasin, Debra Hayward. Co-producer, David Crockett. Directed by Daisy von Scherler Mayer. Screenplay, Tracey Jackson; story, Shekhar Kapur.

Crew

Camera (color), John de Borman; editors, Cara Silverman, Bruce Green; music, David Carbonara; production designers, Robin Standefer, Sean Afshar; costume designer, Michael Clancy; sound (Dolby), Robert Carr, Matthew Iadarola; choreographer, Mary Ann Kellogg; casting, Laura Rosenthal, Ali Farrell. Reviewed at Warner Village West End 7, London, June 24, 2002. (In Edinburgh Film Festival -- Galas.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 91 MIN.

With

Sharonna -- Heather Graham Lexi -- Marisa Tomei Ramu Chandra Gupta -- Jimi Mistry Dwain -- Michael McKean Chantal -- Christine Baranski Josh -- Rob Morrow Father Flannagan -- Malachy McCourt Cook -- Sanjeev Bhaskar
With: Thomas McCarthy, Emil Marwa, Ronald Guttman.
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