Thursday, June 21, 2018

A salute to Mariska Hargitay, who survived The Love Guru

By Darren Franich

Ten years ago, Mariska Hargitay was merely the popular star of a long-running TV series. She had won an Emmy a couple years earlier for her role as Detective Olivia Benson on Law & Order: SVU — the only Emmy win, in fact, for any lead performer in the Law & Order-verse, and an early indication that Hargitay’s persona was inextricably linked to the whole cultural idea of Law & Order more than the wry Orbachs and gravely Watersons from the franchise mothership.

In 2018, Mariska Hargitay is still a TV star, preparing to return for Year 20 of SVU. She’s also, like, an elemental force, a firmamental aspect of pop culture, meaningfully still here in a way that suggests she won’t leave. If she’s canceled or retired, she’ll still be here: SVU is making new episodes, but its tail grows longer in rerun perpetuity. Around 2011 was the first time friends started admitting they watched SVU as comfort food. In 2015, SVU fan Taylor Swift assembled a cast of hashtags for her “Bad Blood” music video, a parade of insta-models and millennial multihyphenates and the Delevingnes of yesteryear.

The event of the video, of course, was the climactic appearance of Hargitay herself, alongside fellow broadcast empress Ellen Pompeo — and Hargitay got the best alter ego, “Justice,” short, descriptive, accurate. Just a few years later, “Bad Blood” already feels ancient, a distant epoch when everything was #squadsomething. Hargitay’s still Hargitay.

And the whole time she’s been a TV deity, Hargitay’s had precisely one appearance in a major Hollywood movie. It was The Love Guru, one of the worst movies ever made but one of the best arguments in favor of total nuclear annihilation.

Released ten years ago Wednesday, The Love Guru marked the end of comedian Mike Myers’ era as a bankable Hollywood star. He had an enviable position in what Hollywood was becoming, the face of one successful franchise (Austin Powers) and the irreplaceable voice of another (Shrek).

And he threw it all away with The Love Guru, a self-immolating labor of terrible love. 2008 had already been a summer of calamity for some of the decade’s superstar figures. The Wachowskis’ Speed Racer sunk, and Shyamalan’s The Happening was sunker. But those directors didn’t appear on screen. Whereas Myers is all over The Love Guru: a public spectacle of loud failure. He stars as Guru Pitka, a new age-y self-helper living a charmed life in glorious cameo-strewn Hollywood. The plot of the film — sorry, the “plot” of the “film” — is that he’s got to fly up to Toronto to help the Maple Leafs’ star Darren (Romany Malco) get his mojo back. Hard to explain why, it involves mommy issues and Justin Timberlake’s giant, errr, hockey stick.

Now, no movie that features a main character named Darren can ever be completely terrible. Except for this movie, which becomes a misery carnival of gags that a fifth grader would describe as “immature.” The humor depends on the viewer assuming that everyone on screen is an alien who learned about human emotions from close study of that formless manthing from the IKEA instructions. Myers is doing a couple different accents, John Lennon by way of something racist, and at certain points falls back on the kind of prop work that first-week improv students love. Someone hands him a corn dog: “Is it made from dog? Is it a dog’s thing? Am I being Punk’d?” Punk’d went off the air in 2007, so even commenting on that reference being lame was lame by the time Love Guru came out.

There’s also a climactic scene where two elephants have sex on a hockey rink, but let’s not dwell on specifics. The badness of Love Guru became historic, and the karmic stain that reverberated through our decade. The story rotates around the Maple Leafs’ Stanley Cup series against the Los Angeles Kings. Myers is a Toronto native who loves the Leafs — and since 2008, the Leafs have continued their decades-long championshipless streak. Meanwhile, the Kings have won the Stanley Cup twice.

But not everyone in The Love Guru was a loser. One of the several horrible running jokes is that Guru Pitka uses the name “Mariska Hargitay” as an all-purpose phrase — greeting, farewell, thanks, space-filler. He greets the celebrity cameos thus: “Mariska Hargitay, Jessica Simpson. Mariska Hargitay, Val Kilmer.” There are more celebrities in Love Guru. The whole plot revolves around the Guru’s aspiration to appear on Oprah Winfrey’s TV show; his great nemesis is Deepak Chopra; when you least expect it, this happens.

And there’s Jessica Alba as the Maple Leafs owner, giving arguably the toughest performance of her career as the person who has to almost-convincingly laugh at Myers’ jokes. It’s a kind of trope of decadent stardom, that moment when you can get anyone on screen for a few moments at a time.

Myers could never have a lineup like this again, just like it’s hard to imagine Taylor Swift circa 2018 reassembling the “Bad Blood” cast (which included, hey, Jessica Alba!)

But there is one truly notable moment in The Love Guru, when Pitka meets one final celebrity:

Yes, it’s her! Hargitay herself! Looking happy to be here, honored, scared, disappointed, but above all, like someone who knows she’s got better things to do. Some stars burn bright into supernovas. The best will shine bright in the night sky long after our civilization is forgotten. The Love Guru is so dumb, but Pitka’s mantra is catchy, repeated 18 times throughout the movie. Say it to yourself morning, noon, and night: Mariska Hargitay, Mariska Hargitay, Mariska Hargitay…

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