The Mystic Masseur

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“The Mystic Masseur” is not as dull as you’d expect, coming as it does from Ismail Merchant, half of the Merchant/Ivory team of stuffy-film makers. At times, it is lively and entertaining.

But the rest of the time, it is stiff, meandering stuff. It has a lightweight story to tell, and it tells it in a hopelessly impenetrable manner, as if it couldn’t succumb to the temptation to just be enjoyable.

Set in Trinidad in 1943, the title character is Ganesh (Aasif Mandvi), a frustrated teacher who quits the school and heads out to a small village to become a writer. He is only mildly educated, but that’s more than can be said for anyone in the neighboring huts and shacks.

To support himself as he writes, he takes up massage, an art previously practiced with some notoriety by his deceased father. He marries a local girl, and so on.

Some of the performances are quite charming indeed. Aasif Mandvi is fine as the slightly befuddled writer who starts to think he’s as smart as everyone thinks he is.Om Puri, whom you will remember from 1999’s “East Is East” — and if you don’t, you ought to rent that very satisfying comedy and enjoy it — is more than capable here as Ganesh’s irrascible father-in-law.

It is 1 hour and 57 minutes long. It feels easily 30 minutes too long. So many shots could have been cut shorter, and many others could have been cut altogether. There is not a lot here, which is fine; frothy comedy is a perfectly acceptable genre. But Merchant and his screenwriter Caryl Phillips (working from V.S. Naipaul’s novel) won’t admit that frothy comedy is what they’re doing. Everything retains a patina of class and sophistication, and the pace never reaches the speed necessary to make comedy funny. It is a goofy comedy trapped in period piece’s body.

C (1 hr., 57 min.; PG, some very mild profanity.)

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