Paul Thomas Anderson Tries Too Hard and Not Hard Enough
For all of the over-exaggerated attention – read publicity ploy — given to “The Master’s” loose narrative ties regarding the Church of Scientology, Paul Thomas Anderson’s cinematic dog lacks any amount of storyline, arc, or likeable characters. The movie is a riddle not worth solving. As a high-budget experiment in avant-garde filmmaking, “The Master” is barely tolerable if not entirely watchable. Anderson’s ballyhooed process of shooting the film in outdated 70mm comes off as a needless gimmick. The look of the film might be pristine, but what’s being shown leaves much to be desired.
The cinematic sleeping pill features an all-in performance by Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell, a rudderless PTSD-suffering World War II Navy veteran who makes Mickey Rourke’s alcoholic version of Charles Bukowski in “Barfly” seem like a lightweight. Freddie has a knack for drinking anything with alcohol, including torpedo fuel and paint thinner. The year is 1950. Freddei’s Freddie is like a character right out of Lou Reed’s iconic song “Street Hassle.” To paraphrase the song, He can never find a voice to talk with that he can call his own. So the first thing he sees that allows him the right to be; he follows it. It’s called bad luck.
In San Francisco, Freddie stumbles onto a moored yacht inhabited by L. Ron Hubbard alter ego Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). The boat is headed for New York via the Panama Canal. Onboard are Dodd’s group of faceless cult followers and his loyal collaborator wife Peggy (Amy Adams), and two young adult sons — probably from another marriage. Dodd catches Freddie with a freshly made concoction of questionable hooch — Freddie poisoned some poor soul with the last batch he made while working on a farm picking cabbages. Dodd befriends the helpless scoundrel. Dodd appreciates Freddie’s animalistic nature and utter desperation. He may harbor homosexual feelings for the wacked-out stowaway. Freddie is a perfect test subject for Dodd to try out his “process,” a ritualized survey of repeated questions. “Have you ever slept with a member of your family?” Dodd asks. For Freddie, the answer is yes.
It’s evident that Anderson is evoking a time in American culture when people had limited access to information. Wartime propaganda created a strange kind of isolationist psychology that adventurous people sought to escape. An impromptu religion based in science-fiction fantasy just might do the trick.
“The Master” is all theme and no substance. A modicum of social context and gratuitous sex hardly distract from the parlor game Anderson plays with his audience. Joaquin Phoenix’s damaged character reflects his own troubled behavior over the past half-decade so much that you wonder how much of it is just Joaquin playing himself. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal seems trapped in amber. Lancaster Dodd is such a huckster and a shyster that you can’t get on either side of him as a protagonist or an antagonist.
As with Lou Reed’s notorious album of over-modulated feedback (“Metal Machine Music”), the audience is left to decide if the movie is some kind of bad joke, or an artistic project gone horribly astray. If you’re the kind of person who likes anti-narrative movies made up of barely connected scenes that defy all rules of dramaturgy, then you might get something out of “The Master.” All I got was bored, sleepy, and hungry.
Rated R. 138 mins. (D) One Star - out of five/no halves)