Like all great salesmen, multimillionaire “life and business strategist” Tony Robbins is a master storyteller. Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru documents the man’s six-day “Date with Destiny” seminar, for which 2,500 people pay $4,995 a pop to watch Robbins intensely interrogate a chosen few of them in a hotel ballroom, breaking down their life problems into an easily definable core—typically their parents or their relationships—and building from that a path forward to some future happy ending. He, in essence, transforms the messiness and complexity of each subject’s life into a gripping narrative, one with a linear arc about overcoming one’s fears to achieve a goal. These mini-narratives usually climax with a dramatic act instigated by Robbins: a bit of celebratory crowd-surfing in one instance, and a woman basically coerced into breaking up with her boyfriend over the phone in another.
Gravel-voiced, with the burly physique and smug charisma of a professional wrestler, Robbins is an undeniably compelling performer. His interrogations, which often last hours, but are here pared down by director Joe Berlinger to about 10 minutes apiece, are often spellbinding. Over the course of I Am Not Your Guru’s nearly two-hour runtime, though, the cracks in Robbins’s methods begin to show. Outside of the interrogation sessions, Robbins speaks mostly in hazy generalities—“truth,” “depth,” “love,” “vision,” “drive”—while offering bland all-purpose advice like “Reclaim who you really are.”
Meanwhile, the guidance he gives participants often seems misguided; an epilogue reveals that the woman urged to break up with her boyfriend reconciled with him shortly after the seminar. At other times, it’s simply a deus ex machina: Robbins simply gifts a career as a life coach to one woman, the survivor of a horrifying religious sex cult that sold all her possessions to attend Robbins’s seminar. Robbins’s relationship advice is especially bad, premised on gender essentialist nonsense, including a particular disgust for “feminine” men. Robbins commands one wimpy guy to roar like a lion to get in touch with his inner masculine power, after which, in the film’s most cringe-worthy moment, he reports having the best sex of his life.
Shot in a fly-on-the-wall style with little biographical background on Robbins and only superficial interviews, Berlinger constructs I Am Not Your Guru as a concert film. This approach works only to Robbins’s benefit, allowing him to present himself exactly as he wishes to be seen: the consummate professional driven not by his own pecuniary interests, but by his insatiable hunger to help others. While Robbins relentlessly grills seminar participants, Berlinger never subjects him to even the gentlest prodding, allowing him to dispense with questions about his abusive mother, for example, with some vague statements about how she made him the man he is today. Other details (a name change, a 2001 divorce, Robbins’s famous “fire walks,” which recently hospitalized dozens of people in Dallas) aren’t broached at all.
Throughout the film, we see Robbins in his palatial beachfront mansion, a not-so-subtle reminder of his massive financial success, but Berlinger never makes any attempt to draw the line between this gaudy signifier of Robbins’s personal wealth and the desperate, sometimes suicidal people who plop down five grand for his seminars (not to mention an endless array of books, CDs, DVDs, and dietary supplements). Watching Robbins work is often interesting, but, stripped of any meaningful context, it becomes sickeningly close to sitting through a sales pitch for one of his seminars. By focusing solely on Robbins as a performer, Berlinger essentially allows his subject to hijack the film for his own ends, turning this ostensible verité documentary into just another one of Robbins’s infomercials.