Sunday, September 16, 2012

"The Master"

 2 / 5 

Watching Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, I remembered reading about a European art museum that hung an important painting upside down for something like three or four months before anyone noticed.  But once they did, did it matter?

I wondered, because if someone told me now that The Master had been shown to me with three reels out of order, it wouldn't make much difference.  I'd like to ask Anderson, a director whose work I often admire, what he set out to accomplish and whether he thinks he did so.  And just as I'd be curious to know how art critics reacted to news that a painting they liked was upside-down when they wrote positive reviews, I'd love to know what film critics praising The Master as "challenging," "brooding" and "complex" mean by those words.  The Master is a bore.

At least Anderson himself is honest, admitting in interviews that The Master came about partly as a result of writing a character in search of a story.  Here's what he told The San Francisco Chronicle: "I was just sort of messing around writing, and then about four or five years ago, I started becoming more specific, 'What is this? Where are these pieces going?'"

Apparently he never did find out, and for nearly two and a half hours The Master moves at a glacial pace, partly proving Einstein right: Those two and a half hours feel very different in the theater than they might in any other activity.  Finally, it comes to a conclusion, or at least a final scene, about as pointless as one of the pseudo-psychological exercises that are the core of The Cause, the pseudo-psychological cult at the center of The Master.

The character Anderson wrote is certainly a vivid one, a pained loser so emotionally scarred by his experiences in the South Pacific during World War II that he's addicted to sex and to alcohol-like concoctions (formaldehyde, Lysol, paint thinner, whatever happens to be close by).  After one of his cocktails nearly kills a man, on-the-lam Freddy literally stumbles onto a yacht chartered by Lancaster Dodd, a charismatic crackpot who has started a small cult that bears more than a passing resemblance to Scientology.  Dodd believes an astonishing number of random things -- that humans are trillions of years old, that answering a bizarre series of unconnected questions will help you become a better person, and that people should call him "Master" when they address him.

Dodd is played with winning appeal and an uncomfortable gaze by Philip Seymour Hoffman, while Joaquin Phoenix is Freddy -- delivering a performance that is either uncompromising or a goofy riff on his David Letterman performance-art appearance; take your pick, either definition works.

In smaller, no-less-off-kilter roles are Amy Adams as Dodd's wife, and Laura Dern as a wealthy acolyte.  Neither female performance amounts to much -- throughout the movie, women are either sexual partners or irritating nuisances, or both.  The only two characters that matter to any degree are Dodd and Freddy, and it's their interplay that is, I guess, supposed to be enlightening.

But about what?  The Master offers no insight into the origins or precepts of Scientology -- er, The Cause -- doesn't have much of a perspective on whether it's helpful or harmful to Freddy, and shies away from the moments that might have been most illuminating.  Freddy may be simple-minded, but does he really believe that his problems were "implanted" in his soul millions of years ago?  What must he think when he comes to the conclusion that his Master is a sham?  For that matter, what of Dodd's adherents, who do, at various points in the movie, offer up their own questions?

As much as I appreciate the ambitious melodrama of Magnolia, the discomfiting sleaze of Boogie Nights and (to a much lesser degree) the bizarre epic of There Will Be Blood, nothing in The Master works this time around.  This is a plodding bore of a movie, one whose 65mm photography and meticulous set design can't save.

This is not an exploration of a cult, an examination of a religion, a story of two lonely men who make a connection, a survey of 1950s morality, a closely observed character study, or ... well, that's the problem: It's way too easy to define all the things The Master is not rather than anything that it actually is.  Except, maybe, it's upside down.  That wouldn't excuse it, but it would explain some things.

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