Review: The Master

Sep 28, 2012

Going to movies is like having Forest Gump’s box o’ chocolates… you never know what you’re gonna get.

Sometimes you walk into a low-budget indie film with no known stars, and a fairly goofy concept, and it turns out to be Safety Not Guaranteed, a totally charming and disarming tale that leaves a big smile on your face.

Or, maybe it’s a film with a pedigree, great cast, eagerly anticipated by all with some outstanding reviews coming from early screenings. And it turns out to be Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, which is two-and-a-quarter hours with some of the most shrill, unlikable people you’d never want to meet. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Freddie Quill, a World War II veteran who is seriously disturbed. His only interests seem to be sex and drinking, and for those passions, anything goes. Freddie will combine any number of items to concoct something different to drink, including paint thinner and hair tonic. Yet women find him charming and desirable. Go figure.

Unable to hold a job, Freddie stows away on a boat captained by Lancaster Dodd, as played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Dodd is, as he says, a teacher, author philosopher, scientist, etc., et al.  In other words, he's a know-it-all. He takes a liking to Freddie for both his mixology skills, and his potential as a protégée for his mission.

Allegedly, The Master is to L. Ron Hubbard and the founding of Scientology, as Citizen Kane was to William Randolph Hearst and the founding of his publishing empire. Unlike Citizen Kane, however, there’s nothing matching the filmmaking skills of Orson Welles and company on display here.

There have been suggestions that Joaquin Phoenix is a shoo-in for next year’s Best Actor Oscar. I thought he was wildly overacting, mumbling a lot of his dialogue through one side of a crooked mouth, all the while being psychotically combative and unstable. Philip Seymour Hoffman is fine as Lancaster Dodd, but when isn’t he fine. Amy Adams is pretty much wasted as Dodd’s pregnant wife.

Whenever I see a film I dislike as much as The Master, I always wonder “is it just me?” Since I don’t read other reviews until after I see a film, I plowed through pages of raves, all the while scratching my head. And then there was one that caught my eye. Rex Reed in the New York Observer wrote it, and it said everything about this film that I was thinking. I generally disagree with Reed, as I find him particularly snarky, but in the case of The Master, the film deserved his in-print tongue-lashing.

Paul Thomas Anderson can be a masterful director. I really liked his first feature Hard Eight, but was totally blown away by Boogie Nights, his treatise on the porn industry that made a star of Mark Wahlberg. After seeing his previous film, There Will Be Blood which left me completely cold, I was hoping for some improvement with his next venture. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t dislike movies about flawed characters that are basically nuts and scream at each other a lot. I loved Taxi Driver. I loved Network. I loved Raging Bull. I saw all of them multiple times. Here’s hoping I never have to sit through The Master ever again. That would qualify as cruel and unusual punishment.

The R-rated The Master is now showing at the Esquire, AMCNewport on the Levee, Rave Milford and West Chester, Regal Deerfield Township, and Springdale Cinema de Lux.