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Film Review: ‘Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru’

The motivational speaking superstar gets an uncritical showcase in Joe Berlinger's atypically non-investigative doc.

Courtesy of Third Eye Motion Picture Co.

Anyone who’s wanted to take a plunge into motivational speaking superstar Tony Robbins’ “life performance coaching” without surrendering a larger chunk of time or cash now have the option of watching “Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru,” which condenses one of his trademark seminars down to two-hour form. Those expecting insight into Robbins’ life or career, let alone the overall self-help industry, will be disappointed by this atypically non-investigative Joe Berlinger documentary. But then the director himself had a “transformative” experience attending one of the subject’s seminars not long ago, so his critical antennae are not turned on here. Those who have likewise already benefited from Robbins’ positive-thinking boot camps may be the ideal audience for this slick feature, which becomes available exclusively to Netflix members worldwide on July 15. Potential viewers stubbornly resistant to such group-think exercises, however, are unlikely to find themselves jumping on the bandwagon.

The event recorded here is a Boca Raton edition of Robbins’ favorite among the various workshops he holds for about 200,000 people per year, the “Date With Destiny.” Aiming to help you “discover your purpose and ignite passion,” according to his website, it offers approximately 2,500 attendees at a time a series of structured exercises and smaller-group activities mostly kept off screen here. Instead, the pic focuses on those stretches when the still strapping if now middle-aged Robbins exhorts the full crowd, and holds spontaneous “interventions” with individuals that are captured on camera by his team (for Jumbotrons around the room) and Berlinger’s.

The title notwithstanding, the people who have ponied up $5,000 to be here do want Robbins to play guru, in the sense that they’re willing, even eager, to have him deliver blunt analyses of their underlying issues after just a few minutes’ highly public conversation, frequently dropping the F-bomb en route. Sometimes this turbo-powered version of “Dear Abby” can seem misguided, as when he bullies a woman uncertain about a relationship into breaking up with her boyfriend by phone at that very moment. (Understandably, he hangs up on her, and a postscript reveals that they worked out staying together after all.)

But then the folks here aren’t paying for nuanced, long-term therapy. They want psychological dynamite to blast through the personal limitations they’ve been hung up on. The rock-concert atmosphere of surging music, fist pumping, high fives and hugs is almost as key to that breakthrough-inducing atmosphere as Robbins’ own winner-as-everyman persona, which seems as quintessentially American as Rocky Balboa (only taller and more garrulous). His tactics appear to work like a charm on a young woman burdened by a history of trying to please a substance-abusing father; another who’s been unable to trust anyone since a childhood of institutional sexual abuse; a young man whose perfectionist standards for himself have triggered suicidal thoughts; and a couple who aren’t quite meeting each other’s needs.

Seeing these people repeatedly burst into grateful tears and thank everyone (but especially Robbins) for making them see the light is going to be deeply moving for some viewers, particularly those who already have or probably soon will become a part of the live Robbins experience. Others may be more skeptical about the methodologies here, or wonder just how different they are from certain New Age-y religious cults or such no-longer-fashionable but roughly similar “transformative” systems as Est.

Those are topics for another film to pursue, however — definitely not the one Berlinger is making here. The occasional questions he asks Robbins during seminar breaks, or at the subject’s Palm Beach home, are pointed enough but lack depth or follow-through. Near the end, Robbins himself shrugs that no one would be interested in a movie about him — i.e., his life and career off the podium. That may well be a faux-humble evasion, and is wrong besides. But it deftly acquits “I Am Not Your Guru” of any responsibility in peeking behind the wizard’s curtain.

The assembly should hardly be more polished, with plenty of crane shots and other luxe aspects fit for a high-end corporate promotional video.

Film Review: ‘Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru’

Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (Headliners), March 14, 2016. Running time: <strong>115 MIN.</strong>

  • Production: (Documentary) A Netflix release of a Netflix Documentary presentation of a Radical Media and Third Eye Motion Picture Co. production. Produced by Joe Berlinger, Kevin Huffman, Lisa Gray. Executive producers, Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Jon Kamen, Frank Scherma, Justin Wilkes, Lisa Nishimura, Adam del Deo. Co-producer, Daniel T. Wilson.
  • Crew: Directed by Joe Berlinger. Camera (color, HD), Robert Richman; editors, Cy Christiansen, Brett Mason; music, Wendy Blackstone; sound, Edward Luke O'Connor, John Hollis, Ryan Kelly; re-recording mixer, Tom Paul.
  • With: Tony Robbins, Bonnie Sage Robbins, Dawn, Hali, Jane, Sienna, Lance, Tami.