Tony Robbins is huge. Really: the life coach/motivational speaker/practical psychologist/whatever-you-want-to-call-him stands 6'7" in his socks. He's built an empire to match — one that includes an apparently vast global following and a raft of best-selling books on how to do almost anything. His packed seminars sell for $5,000 a pop to those with problems common enough, sensational enough, or devastating enough to merit a life-makeover from Robbins and his team. He won't answer to "guru" however, per the title of a surprisingly worshipful hagiography from Joe Berlinger, who's best known for hard-hitting documentary defenses of the wronged and the powerless like Brother's Keeper and the Paradise Lost trilogy.
Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru is tightly focused in and around one of the "Date With Destiny" seminars held near Robbins' palatial home in Palm Beach, Fla. Thousands of disciples from all over the world are cloistered in a cavernous venue for six days to yell, laugh, cry, jump and down, and empathize at the bidding of Robbins and an army of warmer-uppers. Berlinger admits to undergoing his own "transformational experience" at a Robbins seminar, which may be why the film feels more like a festschrift than a portrait. It helps that Robbins, who's known for carefully grooming his own closely guarded image, said yes only after two years of saying no.
In essence, Berlinger has made a concert movie that alternates smoothly between Robbin's ritualized prep routines (he drops himself in ice water or bounces on a tiny trampoline that barely accommodates his barrel-chested frame) and his fist-pumping entries and exits, accompanied by peppy tunes. This is familiar-enough stuff, but the close-ups of Robbins' thrusting interactions with select audience members fill us in on the man's particular charisma, a mesmerizing brew of kindness and bullying peppered with rhythmic repetitions of the f-word that seem to have the effect of parlayzing his subjects into submission.
With his jutting granite jaw, feral grin and manic energy, Robbins eerily recalls Burt Lancaster's spiritualist con-man in Elmer Gantry. For all his protestations to Berlinger that he "goes by instinct," you can't help but notice that a disproportionate number of his audience picks are attractive women, whose confessions of anything from diet problems to appalling sexual abuse earn them homilies book-ended by very long hugs. In one spellbindingly awkward scene, Robbins commands a woman who's unsure of her relationship to call her fiancé on her cell phone and break up with him on the spot.
Robbins comes across as psychologically astute in the way of an intelligent psychic, and there's little reason to doubt that his strictures have helped many stuck or timid people to take charge of their futures. But his explanatory range is limited and banal — almost invariably there's a parental villain hovering over someone's current suffering — and his certitude is terrifying. In a rare interrogative moment, Berlinger asks mildly if Robbins has ever considered he might be wrong. Robbins neatly sidesteps the question by insisting that he "looks for what's real," and moves on. He's equally evasive about himself, snowing Berlinger with pellets of the same well-worn information he gives his audiences: that he has rebuilt "this guy Robbins" from the ashes of a difficult childhood with an absent father and an alcoholic mother who beat him, and anyone can do the same.
Those familiar with Berlinger's other work may be surprised at his credulous embrace of a man who is his own vast corporation, and who's been dogged by accusations of profiting from the suffering of vulnerable others. Robbins has been sued for plagiarism, and his post-recession excursion into financial advising has been variously written off as banal, uninformed or perniciously misleading.
None of this makes it into this mash note of a movie, which passively accepts Robbins' view of himself and the adulation of his followers. Willfully or not, the director misses one opportunity after another to pull back and assess. Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru makes us see how one man can be both huckster and hero, but it leaves you with the nagging suspicion that neither the guru nor his disciples know which is which — or, perhaps, cares.