Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru


Primal screaming.

Primal screaming.

(2016) Documentary (Netflix) Tony Robbins, Joe Berlinger, Dawn Watson, Bonnie-Pearl “Sage” Robbins, John Turbett, Sarah Fosmol, Diane Adcock, Jerrisa Escota, Vicki St. George, Tad Schinke, Julianne Hough, Maria Manounos. Directed by Joe Berlinger

 

Tony Robbins is a giant, both in a literal and a figurative sense. He is built like a professional wrestler, sure, but it is in the field of self-help that he stands out even more than he does in a crowd. He has for all intents and purposes become a brand name.

Every year he conducts a six day and night immersion experience entitled Date with Destiny near his South Florida home. More than 2,000 guests attended the 2014 version and acclaimed documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger – himself an attendee at an earlier DwD – brought his cameras along.

First off, let’s clear up a misconception that the title may be in part responsible for. This isn’t about Tony Robbins so much as it is about his methods. We see him at work, and it comes off essentially as a concert film and the similarities between a Tony Robbins seminar and a rock concert are a little unsettling. The star comes onstage to a swell of loud energetic music, his fans jump and scream and applaud and he raises his arms in triumph. All that is needed is two thousand flicked BICs to fully realize the comparison.

We get to see the people who come to this seminar/celebration,  and the stories that they tell range from first world problems (a woman who has difficulties in choosing the right man) to deeper issues (a young 19-year-old girl whose father is a drug addict) to the truly horrifying story of the star “intervention” (as Robbins refers to them as) – Dawn Watson, a beautiful young Brazilian woman who grew up in a religious cult in which sex was available to anyone in the cult upon demand; starting at age six (!) Watson was called upon to provide sexual favors for anyone who wanted them without having the right of refusal because, according to the cult leaders, sex was how we show our devotion to God. It had messed her up but good, unsurprisingly.

In some ways these interventions resemble an old fashioned camp meeting with the sick being healed with the laying on of hands. It isn’t quite that simple, fortunately – Robbins asks some penetrating questions and requires those he intervenes with to be brutally honest with themselves and certainly that kind of psychiatric practice is one I can relate to. Any kind of life change begins with complete honesty and accountability.

Still, I can’t help but feel a bit skeptical and maybe that’s because Berlinger really doesn’t ask any tough questions or, really, any questions at all. This is in effect a 115 commercial for Robbins, which tells me that Berlinger isn’t the right guy to make this movie; he’s not only had a drink of the Kool-Aid but he has been guzzling it ever since. A little bit more objectivity would have been welcome.

There is a fascination in watching Robbins go about his work and there’s no doubt that he is sincere about wanting to help others find their full potential and overcome sometimes crippling issues that keep them from enjoying the most out of life. I don’t necessarily think he’s a charlatan, despite my misgivings; he seems to have a fairly grounded education in psychological study and he does have a pretty good gift at understanding people and their needs. He has the charisma to inspire trust and he can have a total stranger answering the most personal and intimate of questions without batting an eyelash. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Robbins is the Andre the Giant of self-help.

The environment has a lot to do with whether or not this stuff works or not. The people who are there are there because they want to be – and paid over $5K for the privilege (NOTE: That was in 2014. If you wanted to go to the 2016 version, you’d have to pay almost $8K to go – if you could get tickets since it’s been sold out for quite awhile). People come from all over the world to attend and I found it amazing that there is a whole team of translators working in a booth nearby and broadcasting translations into headsets that non-English speakers wear. We do get a good look behind the scenes and see the army of technicians, team leaders and other workers make sure the event runs smoothly. From that aspect, it’s fascinating how much detail goes into each and every session and we get a sense of how Tony chooses those interventions he wishes to conduct.

What we don’t get is insight into who Tony Robbins. We hear, on more than one occasion, how growing up with an abusive mother and living with the pain of that condition led him to an obsession with helping people overcome their pain but what we don’t really get is a roadmap that takes us from Point A to Point B. Robbins appears to be an intensely private person and that’s okay, but we really don’t get much more than what we see at the sessions. His wife Sage comes on late in the movie to assert that what we see with him is really what we get – that he’s like that pretty much all the time, but it still doesn’t let us in much. That does make this a difficult documentary to like.

I would be curious to do a follow-up with some of the interventions that we see. We do get a graphic that tells us that the gal who broke up with her boyfriend on the phone because Tony advised her to got back together with him, and the gal with the drug abusing father reconnected with him, among other interventions.

This isn’t very critical of Robbins and maybe it doesn’t have to be. Certainly those who can’t afford the big time fees to go to one of these things might at least partially benefit from this condensed version keeping in mind that at one of these there are team exercises as well as well as these main hall encounters with Robbins – the sessions last 8-12 hours each day and involve a great deal of work on the part of the participant. Nonetheless this may appeal to people who are looking for answers and searching for a direction on where to find them, or who just want to see Robbins in action. All others, be warned that this is more of a puff piece than a hard-hitting documentary.

REASONS TO GO: You get the sense of Robbins’ commitment to those seeking his help.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally feels contrived and manipulative.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a whole lot of profanity, some sexual references and some very adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie premiered at the fifth annual American Documentary Film Festival earlier this year.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/9/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 44% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Decoding Deepak
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Cafe Society

Yes Man


Yes Man

Carl and Allison need to break out of their prison of negativity.

(Warner Brothers) Jim Carrey, Zooey Deschanel, Bradley Cooper, Terence Stamp, Danny Masterson, Rhys Darby, Michael Higgins, Sasha Alexander, Molly Sims. Directed by Peyton Reed

We hairless apes can be a pretty negative bunch. We have a tendency to want to stick to our comfort zone, whether we are happy in that place or not. We rarely embrace the positive; we’d much rather say “no” to life than risk potentially making a fool of ourselves.

Carl (Carrey), a junior loan officer at a regional bank in Los Angeles, has taken this to extremes. Still emotionally stunted after a painful divorce three years earlier, he has blown off most of his friends, particularly Peter (Cooper), Carl’s best friend, who recently got engaged. Mostly he wants to avoid a chance meeting with Stephanie (Sims), his ex but in reality he’s stopped living.

When his boss Norman (Darby) asks him to a get-together, Carl says no. When someone hands him a flyer to see a band, Carl turns it down. Go out drinking with Peter and their other buddy Rooney (Masterson)? Forget about it. Carl would much rather cocoon himself in his apartment with a rented video before starting his dreary existence all over again the next morning.

That is, before Carl is dragged into a self-help group that worships the power of Yes. The guru of the group (Stamp) preaches the transformative powers of saying Yes to life instead of No. When Carrey appears hesitant (and endures a cult-like chanting of “NO MAN NO MAN NO MAN” from the seminar attendees), Carl is intimidating into accepting a covenant with the guru – that he must say yes to every opportunity that presents itself to him.

So when a homeless man demands a ride into a isolated hillside park? Carl must say yes. When the same man asks to use Carl’s cell phone? Of course, even though the homeless man drains the battery. Give the homeless guy all his cash? Si, amigo!

Strangely, this does prove transformative in Carl’s life, particularly when he meets Allison (Deschanel) who fronts a strange synthpop art band and runs a jogging photography class by day – how very quirky! However, one wonders how genuine the romance can be if one is required to say yes to everything the other suggests. Certainly Allison wonders when she finds out about Carl’s odd covenant.

This is a little bit too reminiscent of Liar, Liar for my liking – in that film, Carrey was a lawyer forced to say the truth no matter what by a magic spell. Here, it’s not so much magic as karma that goes after him; the first time he says no, he winds up falling down a flight of stairs and nearly mauled by the kind of dog that most apartment complexes won’t allow you to keep.

Carrey has never been my favorite comedian; he mugs a little bit too much and a little bit goes an awful long way. He really hasn’t varied his act much over the past 20 years going back to Ace Ventura Pet Detective and now approaching 50, it wears a bit thin. Still, when he reins in his more excessive tendencies (as he did in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) I actually do like him.

However, Deschanel is one of my favorite actresses. She has that quirky quality that indie film directors adore and she is also innately sweet, not to mention totally gorgeous. Whenever she’s onscreen, the movie works and not just because of her beauty or her quirkiness. She plays off of Carrey nicely and the chemistry between them is genuine enough that it makes you forget the age difference which might have made the movie romance a little bit creepy.

The movie has an outstanding support cast. In addition to a pre-The Hangover Cooper and veteran actor Stamp, it has small screen talents Masterson (“That 70s Show”), Sims (“Vegas”) and Darby (“Flight of the Conchords”) who is particularly engaging as the trying-too-hard bank manager Norman who has a penchant for nerdiness and Harry Potter.

Reed, who also directed The Break Up, shows flashes of brilliance in the director’s chair but is hamstrung by a script that follows Romantic Comedy formula 101 to a “T” which pretty much drains the movie of all its suspense. Also, the concept could have been tweaked a bit; Carl says Yes not so much because he has to but because he feels compelled to. It removes a bit of the dramatic tension that might have brought this movie a better rating.

For the most part, it’s fairly harmless and some of the humor that comes from the situations Carl gets into by saying yes gets more than polite chuckles. Given that I’m not a particular Jim Carrey fan may give you pause to consider that I might have rated this a bit lower than it deserves to be; certainly the work of Darby and particularly Deschanel make it worth checking out as a rental. However, at the end of the day this isn’t something I would watch again if I had a choice. That makes Yes Man a solid maybe.

WHY RENT THIS: Deschanel is one of the most engaging actresses in the business. Her chemistry with Carrey gives the movie added sweetness.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie is a bit formulaic, particularly when it comes to the romance. When Carrey goes over-the-top, the movie gets a bit stale.

FAMILY VALUES: The humor can be crude and juvenile at times, with emphasis on the sexual. There’s also some brief nudity and a smattering of bad language. All in all, this is probably acceptable for most teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jim Carrey and Zooey Deschanel share the same birthday, January 17th – exactly 18 years apart (Carrey was born in 1962, Deschanel in 1980).

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Both the DVD and Blu-Ray editions have music videos (which are in reality just full uncut takes of song performances) by Allison’s Munchausen by Proxy band, as well as a “Behind the Music”-like faux documentary on the band’s rise to fame. Norman gives us a tour of his bachelor pad/love nest and we see Carrey chug a can of Red Bull and give his spiel on Red Bull love on the Blu-Ray disc.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: In the Loop