Like Paula Abdul’s belligerent rants on American Idol, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, The Master, is long, confusing, and underdeveloped. What is the movie about? I’m not entirely sure. I am a little scared to say it because I know Tom Cruise can kill me in seconds with his eyes alone, but the 137 minute tale loosely depicting the invention L. Ron Hubbard’s religion is filled with emotional struggles and beautifully developed characters–and yet, nothing really happens.
The story begins on a beach with Navy officers building a naked woman out of sand. Quickly, the story focuses in on Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). And it’s obvious after about ten seconds of Freddie having “sex” with the sand woman that Freddie is a hot mess. After serving in the Navy during the Second World War, Freddie has trouble, like most ex-soldiers do, finding their way back into civilian life. He tries out several jobs, like being a photographer at a department store and hacking up lettuce as a field worker. But every time, he manages to screw up and then explode all over the people around him. So basically, he needs a friend.
Well, it just so happens that Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who calls himself the “Master,” is a narcissistic and charismatic attention-whore who also needs a friend, or rather, a loyal henchman to help convince people that he’s discovered the secret to life. So the two start dating. Well, not dating exactly. Freddie is too obsessed with the female body and Lancaster is way too concerned with his image as the “Master of The Cause” to take up with another man. But Freddie and Lancaster’s relationship is remarkably similar to a melodramatic teenage novel where just as one starts to go in for the kiss, the other turns away.
This push and pull of control continues throughout the entire movie. Again and again, Lancaster tries to mold Freddie into a loyal servant of “The Cause” only to be fought back by Freddie’ alcoholic rage. With every scene, I became more and more tired of seeing the same desperate dance. We are never given clear information as to what Dodd’s “Cause” actually is, and cryptic moments of vague, pious dialogue left me just as confused as I am about Scientology itself.
Truthfully, the movie is exhausting. By the end credits, more than one person in the theater looked like they had just awoken from a peaceful nap. The only thing keeping me from falling asleep myself was the gripping performances by the well-known cast of experienced actors.
It has been a long time since my last date with Joaquin. I have to admit that after his highly publicized hiatus filming the mockumentary I’m Still Here, I was worried we might never see each other again. So when his participation in The Master was announced, I immediately added it to my calendar. The return of Joaquin was going to be epic.
However, after about thirty minutes of giving the movie a chance, it was clear that our reunion was going to be filled with less fireworks and more of the same ‘ole same ‘ole. Honestly, I’m tired of seeing Phoenix drunk. He’s a convincing actor–he proved it in movies like Gladiator and Walk The Line. In The Master, he is just as persuasive as a skinny, hunched over, broken down, drunk soldier with an anger management problem. A description; however, that’s not far off from his fake-Joaquin performance in I’m Still Here. Phoenix is so magnificent at playing the alcoholic misfit with a chip on his shoulder that I’m starting to believe Phoenix himself needs a long stay at Betty Ford. Maybe it’s selfish of me to want to see him shiny and sparkly, but witnessing him in The Master, I felt like I’ve seen this exact performance a million times before.
A similar feeling came over me while watching Amy Adams play Peggy Dodd, a quiet and faithful wife to Hoffman’s Lancaster. I feel bad tearing her performance apart because she is the perfect mousey wife to the self-proclaimed Master. She will probably even be nominated for the performance. But is she really acting? Other than the fifties outfit, I couldn’t tell The Master Amy Adams apart from the Doubt, Julie & Julia, and Charlie Wilson’s War, Adams. Maybe Amy needs talking birds and a Princess gown to be able to show some liveliness, but after seeing her as Peggy Dodd, I desperately wanted to take her to a taping of Jerry Springer just so she can see what it’s like to have some expressive emotion.
The same cannot be said for the star of the movie, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Or perhaps I should call him, “The King of Creep.” If Hilter and Jesus had a baby, it would be Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd. Other than his pale, blonde Santa Claus body, Hoffman exhibited the same kind loud, egotistic qualities any dictator might. Lancaster’s long, self-serving sermons filled with spurts of scientific-sounding-words makes his opinions sound more like truth. I found myself more than once sitting at the edge of my seat, holding onto to every made-up tale. And if his speeches aren’t convincing enough, witnessing him “process” people will turn you into a believer.
Much of the movie is made up of these “processing” scenes between Lancaster and Freddie, where Lancaster basically interrogates Freddie for so long that he’s stripped down to barely human. At one point, Freddie even has to walk back and forth between two walls all day until they no longer feel like walls, but like the ocean or flowers or a baby’s face. Flashes of torture scenes immediately filled my head. Actually, throughout the entire movie my mind kept wandering off. Like when all the females in the room suddenly become naked–that woke me up. But then when the camera pans to the elderly women who are also naked, my mind starts spinning with questions. Like what old person responds to a casting call for “Naked Grandmas Needed?” It was this sort of randomness; accompanied by sporadic fart jokes, an unexplained affair with a 16-year-old girl, a walk through the Arizona mountains, and a pointless motorcycle desert scene, that made the film unfocused.
The Master is definitely one of those movies that makes you think about your own life. Maybe because there’s so little action happening on screen, your mind can’t help but drift away. Or maybe it’s just a really dull movie that you desperately want to try and make into something more.
Despite all this, I understand why The Master is getting good reviews. It’s one of those movies where people are afraid to sound stupid and shallow, so they call it “artistic” and “deep.” I’m definitely not afraid to sound shallow. So to put it nicely: the movie is boring. Though, I can admit that there are certainly parts of The Master that deserve acclaim and probably will earn many awards. But The Master is less like a movie and more like an acting lesson for theater students. It is packed with way too many subtle metaphors and directorial indulgences to be entertaining. Many scenes nicely start to build but then are abruptly cut off before they come of anything. Some individual moments of the film are breathtaking too, but once strung together, you are left with nothing but monotonous close ups of Joaquin Phoenix’s face and two hours of sleepy fifties music. In the end, The Master has all the ingredients to make a delicious cake, but after a miscalculated recipe and a faulty oven, all I’m left wanting is a nice steak.