By Drew Taylor | The Playlist October 4, 2012 at 3:18PM
The first few moments of the mercifully brief "Decoding Deepak" (it runs a scant 74 minutes) promise something intriguing. In the opening few scenes, the movie teases a look at Deepak Chopra, the spiritual advisor and self-help guru who has written something like sixty books and helped lead the rich and powerful towards existential oneness, not through some detached, analytical third-party lens, but from first-hand knowledge, since the filmmaker/narrator/co-star is Chopra's son, Gotham. Is Deepak a fraud, the genuine article, or something in between? If anyone could figure it out, it's his son and heir to ChopraCorp. Sadly, while it is entertaining in spots and certainly heartfelt, "Decoding Deepak" favors glazed-over generalities over any actual introspection.
Tantalizingly, Gotham offers an abbreviated biography at the beginning of the film – Chopra was an MD who worked hard and partied hard and after nearly veering out of control, entered himself and decided to dedicate his life to spiritual healing and cosmic enlightenment. It's at this point that you want to slow the movie down and say, "Wait, can we hear about when he was bombed all the time and being a total prick?" If you don't have any extensive knowledge of the man, this is clearly the stuff of really compelling drama. Knowing how Chopra got to the lofty position of America's spiritual advisor is probably pretty damn fascinating. But no, we breeze on over all of that.
Instead, the central conceit of the documentary is that Gotham has told his dad that he is accompanying him (with a camera man and a small arsenal of consumer-grade cameras) on an adventure, first to be ordained as a Buddhist monk and then on the less enlightening path to sell his new book, a fictionalized account based on the life of the Muslim prophet Mohammed. But what Gotham is really trying to do (as he explains in voice over form) is trying to get at the heart of Deepak – what makes him tick? Does he really believe everything that he is saying? Or is he merely trying to sell books?
The road to enlightenment is often a meandering one, and so goes the documentary. Most of the movie is Deepak, preparing for his spiritual ordainment with the monks, going on speaking engagements (where he always charmingly addresses the enraptured audience with a cool "What's up?"), appearing on television, and forever traveling. He comes across not as someone with all of the answers of the universe, but as a man constantly struggling with who he is and what he can become. Gotham likes to try and prod for added drama, insisting that Deepak's addiction to his Blackberry is at odds with many of his messages, including the one about always being present in the moment. But Deepak is so charming that he just shrugs it off.
Sometimes you get the impression that Deepak is shoveling utter shit. He has a way of spinning any question into some kind of profound exercise, in a manner that seems offhanded but yet brilliantly calculated. The desired result isn't acknowledgement or even enlightenment but confusion, because someone who still has questions will go back to the Deepak well and ask further questions, which prompts more probing and (ideally) more book sales. As Gotham states, Deepak is someone who is constantly craving attention and adulation from strangers, and has a knack for creating situations that the public will find interesting or controversial. People swirl around him constantly, grabbing at him for morsels of spiritual insight, and he's happy to drop them.
Of course the trade off for Deepak's global quest for spiritual domination, which sounds a lot more sinister than it actually is (it's more like he wants to give the world a big hug and assure them that there's a grand design for us all), is that it costs him many personal connections. When you're trying to get across a worldwide message, it's hard to give proper personal attention to friends and family (like Gotham, who paints Deepak as a benevolent absentee dad). One great moment in the documentary explains the toll that the loss of Michael Jackson took on Deepak, since he was one of the guru's most troubled celebrity students (he was also good friends with Gotham).
The Michael Jackson section segues into one of the more fascinating moments in the movie, where Gotham paints his father's teachings in a possibly dangerous light. The movie is peppered with footage of various television appearances, and in some of them Deepak claims to have found the ability to cure cancer. You get the sensation that he wants to spread a message of hope and positivity, to those who are feeling terribly low, both physically and spiritually. But this is also the kind of thinking that sends terminally ill people to witch doctors and herbalists who claim that they can cure the incurable (usually making off with large sums of money). It's another nugget that you wish the film had delved into, but it's mere presence shows you that Gotham, no matter the palpable amount of respect and admiration for his father, is still willing to push his buttons.
"Decoding Deepak" is perfectly watchable, if not always exactly riveting. If you're a fan of the guru then you will probably find it fascinating and even if you have no real interest in the man, it's still a pretty interesting story, if somewhat lacking in focus or edge. But it's the acceptable nature of the movie that makes it so unacceptable. With just a little bit more prodding and elaboration, the movie could have been rich and evocative. Even if you don't believe what he preaches, the movie (at least) could have bordered on a transcendent experience. As it stands, it's pretty good, but not exactly heavenly. [B-]