Monday, September 24, 2012

“The Master”: Hits and Misses

I had read that “The Master,” the new film by Paul Thomas Anderson, was about a modern American cult and its leader, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. So the first surprise was that the film is not set in the late 1960s, when many in my generation encountered “new religions.” Instead, it’s set just after World War II, and the young man who falls in with The Cause, the Scientology-like movement headed by Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), is a haunted vet of my father’s generation, not of my own.

This may be because L. Ron Hubbard wrote his book Dianetics in the same postwar era, launching Scientology. But it also suggested to me that Anderson was aiming for something bigger and broader than how “masters” magnetize us. Like how Americans have always been suckers for causes.

If that’s the case—that this is what the brilliant director of “Magnolia” (an all-time personal favorite of mine) was aiming at—then there’s a problem with the film. The problem with “The Master” is its one brilliant performance.

Hoffman is never anything less than “great” and my daughter Marian, who saw the film with me yesterday, called Amy Adams’s performance as Dodd’s wife “great,” as well. But there is only “brilliant” here and it belongs to Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell, the young follower of the Cause. As Dodd, Hoffman may dominate the fictional space of the narrative, but Phoenix dominates the screen. You can’t take your eyes off him.

You wonder if the hairlip-like imperfection of his mouth is real or prosthetic. You wonder if Phoenix the actor is really shaped and walks that way—a gaunt haunted clown whose shoulders go before him and at all the wrong angles. You wonder if any actor has ever so inhabited a character, who makes moonshine from paint thinner and is crazier than a junebug.

When I saw that the movie was about Freddie, not Dodd, I had to ask myself if Freddie was representative of anything except his own strangeness. And I didn’t think so. “The Master” begins with Freddie in the trenches and ends with him in bed with a wench he picks up at a pub after apparently leaving the Master once and for all. Good for Freddie. Bravo, Joaquin Phoenix, who will have to be nominated for some awards soon.

All of which would be fine if I had identified with Freddie and so been given insight into why all of us, me included, need masters so badly that we often look in the wrong places, me included. Instead, watching “The Master” was a bit like watching a Tim Burton movie, where the protagonist is so odd that we only smile, if quite uncomfortably.

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