The Master Fails to Enlighten
The newest film by director Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master, is an unintentionally messy jumble of ideas with no coherent direction. As is true for his overrated Boogie Nights, the director assumes the audience is going to care about the film because Mr. Anderson is an auteur.
A major problem throughout the film is that it tries to carry two, strong main characters. It fails to make either The Master played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, or his protege Freddie Quell, played by Joaquin Phoenix, compelling. Both characters are angry buffoons, The Master being the more clever of the two. A little more history of The Master and his cult might have helped us care.
The character of The Master (Lancaster Dodd) is a combination of Ernest Hemingway and L. Ron Hubbard. Sounds interesting, right? Nope. We start off with an enigmatic macho man at the beginning of the film, but his bragging has no base in reality and fails to live up its billing. He is cruel, and while charismatic leaders can be cruel, there is little reason to follow The Master. However, Mr. Hoffman is not to blame as much as Anderson’s script. He assumes that his ideas are inherently interesting, and therefore, it is unnecessary for him to do the work of writing in a back story or compelling motives for his characters.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quill, WWII vet, Schizophrenic, PTSD victim and guinea pig for The Master’s therapeutic techniques. Mr. Phoenix (with an assist from Anderson’s script) is obviously reaching for the Oscar by playing a mentally challenged character, but he misses the gold ring. Perhaps the academy will give him the nod to this "off" character as they did to Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man and Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump. But Phoenix's performance is not worthy of a top award and neither is this filmic drudgery.
The Master’s technique is a kind of regression therapy into this life and past lives, but it’s not dramatic. Even the first therapy encounter between The Master and Freddie leaves us dissatisfied. Certainly, it touches on some tragedy in Freddie’s past, but it’s all surface and leaves us wanting, like drinking salt water in the desert.
The film keeps us at a distance and we don’t care enough about what happens to the characters nor what they do. I am not suggesting we need to like the characters in a movie to enjoy them, but we do need to be moved by them emotionally as we were with the despicable oil man, Daniel Plainview, in Anderson’s last movie, There Will be Blood.
Like one of the songs featured in the movie, The Master is a “slow boat to China”, except the company you are keeping here only makes the journey seem longer and more tedious. If you were stuck on a boat with only this movie, you would be compelled to jump overboard. At least while waiting for this slow boat to end, I could appreciate the Oscar worthy fifties' costumes in the movie.
The movie tries to do too much and accomplishes little. I kept hoping after the beginning of the third act that each scene would be the end of the movie. Hoping a movie will end while watching it in a theater is never a good sign.
Those interested in psychological drama and the acting of Hoffman or Phoenix, or Amy Adams for that matter, will find something enjoyable in this film. For everyone else, rent Anderson’s best and only unequivocally good movie, There Will Be Blood.
Ratings system from best to worst:
5. Pay full price, see it twice
4. Full Price
1. See it only if they pay you