I never cease to be amused by the pile of unmitigated crap that gets shoveled off onto the moviegoing public by pretentious critics. They’re at it again with The Master, a load of film-festival tripe that was booed in Venice and greeted with massive walkouts in Toronto but is now being defended in an organized rescue mission that hopes to develop a minor cult following in New York before the whole thing mercifully vanishes in a puff of twaddle. With an embarrassing, overwrought performance by the dependably creeped-out Joaquin Phoenix that has to be the most hysterically misguided overacting since Dennis Hopper played Napoleon and Harpo Marx played Sir Isaac Newton in The Story of Mankind, I’m tempted to call it the worst thing I have seen this year, but there are two more coming up—Terrence Malick’s dystopic To the Wonder and a diabolically demented time-travel farce called Cloud Atlas—that are even worse. I will also refrain from labeling The Master “the worst movie I’ve ever seen!” because like the proverbial boy who cried wolf, I’ve blurted that cry of despair so many times, who would believe me?It might not even be the worst movie ever made, depending on how you feel about such hollow, juvenile and superficial trash as I ♥ Huckabees, Brewster McCloud, Punch-Drunk Love, Mulholland Drive, The Royal Tenenbaums, Lost Highway, Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses and … well, as they said in Hollywood during the McCarthy witch hunts, “the list goes on.”
With so many amateurs who run what’s left of the once-great movie industry making bad movies that pander to an easy-to-satisfy youth market that doesn’t care what it’s watching as long as the projectors keep running, and with so many bogus producers who used to be parking lot attendants at the Brown Derby always miraculously raising the money to make more, one thing is certain: no matter how rotten the movie is that you just suffered through, there’s always another one on its way that is 10 times worse. Paul Thomas Anderson, the egomaniacal writer-director of The Master, is a member of the new group of anarchists that includes Wes Anderson, Spike Jonze, David O. Russell, freaky Todd Solondz and the dismally overrated, no-talent Charlie Kaufman, who wins critical praise for writing incoherent movies about why he can’t write coherent movies. Abominations like the neo-Kafka burlesque Synedoche, New York are algebraic extensions of all of them put together—eccentric but brainless. And now The Master, which follows in a perfect line—all style and no content—and therefore offers no fresh equation of its own.
Since it doesn’t make one bit of sense—and probably isn’t supposed to—there’s not much to say about it except … why? It begins with Joaquin Phoenix masturbating and goes steadily downhill from there. With agonized silences interrupted by operatic rages, he plays a lost, unfocused sailor stationed in the Pacific during World War II named Freddie Quell, who creates the image of a woman out of sand on a beach and humps it unmercifully. Subject to black depressions, unprovoked violence and crying jags, he’s an obvious mental case. He’s also such a hopeless alcoholic that he even drinks airplane gasoline and cleaning fluid. After the war, Freddie somehow manages to talk his way out of a veterans hospital where he is being observed and studied by a band of bewildered Navy psychiatrists, and wafts from scene to scene—itinerant farm worker, department store photographer and drunken stowaway on a yacht from San Francisco to New York, where his gullibility lands him in the clutches of another nutcase, writer-philosopher-scientist Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who has invented a new cult religion called “The Cause.” Early hype promised an exposé of Scientology, with Hoffman as a thinly veiled L. Ron Hubbard, but as it turns out, The Master has nothing to do with either—or much of anything else.
Anyway, these two wackos hit it off on contact, mainly because Freddie is a tortured soul desperately looking for a surrogate father to lead him into the light, and Dodd is a cryptic phony and ersatz Ayn Rand clone who loves his new convert’s cocktails of peach juice mixed with paint thinner. Between nonsensical interrogations called “The Process” (“Are you one of the Hidden Rulers, or a Communist?”), they sometimes drink Lysol. What little there is of a plot: a religious manipulator who rules his flock by perfecting the art of brainwashing (they think he can trace their previous lives through hypnosis) and claims he can cure cancer finally meets up with a perfect candidate for mind control, who proves unsalvageable. The result is a love affair consummated in the pulpit of Hell. The acolytes include Amy Adams as Hoffman’s pregnant wife, Jesse Plemons as his son, Ambyr Childers and Rami Malek as his daughter and her new husband, and Laura Dern, a Philadelphia heiress who contributes to The Cause if not the film in what amounts to little more than a walk-on. It is rare to see a union of such accomplished folks so desperate to form some kind of emotional connection with material that is essentially unplayable in a film fueled by chaos. Farcical dream sequences fill in the gaps where a narrative should be, like a party where all the female converts cavort full-frontally naked while the men sip champagne and ogle them in a drooling frenzy—a scene stolen, I might add, right out of Stanley Kubrick’s dreadful 1999 Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman fiasco Eyes Wide Shut. As the movie drags on interminably, Freddie becomes his master’s henchman, defending him against all skeptics and detractors, violently attacking the police who come to arrest Dodd for extortion. Freddie is too stupid to think for himself, even after Dodd’s own son Val tells him that his father just makes up the rules of the cult as he goes along. Freddie abandons The Cause to find his own salvation, tracks down his wartime sweetheart and finds her married, then goes on a binge that makes The Lost Weekend look like a Disney cartoon. It all ends up in England, where Dodd the Zealot has relocated his operations to avoid arrest and taxes. One last stab at rehabilitating Freddie fails, and the movie just peters away to zero.
There’s a lot of excessive acting going on here, but none of it comes to anything. Since no character is ever properly developed, the cast is left to create stick figures out of some kind of neurotic haze. As much as I admire the charismatic Philip Seymour Hoffman, he’s just shadowboxing here. As a toxic messiah who charms, cheats and seduces his subjects, he huffs and puffs and tries to blow the house down, but the superficial dialogue does him in. Even accomplished actors need guidance, and director Anderson fails to display the remotest knowledge of tempo or pacing. Hoffman’s “Processing Session,” during which he forces Freddie to repeat his actions again and again, goes on for a good 20 minutes. As for Joaquin Phoenix, his idea of conveying brain damage is to walk around with a bone protruding from his shoulder blade, hunched over in a loping position, like a pretzel-shaped orangutan. Is he auditioning for The Elephant Man?Grotesquely mannered for no reason, his facial expressions range from gross distortions to blank novocained stares. They call this acting, but it’s acting from the Sacha Baron Cohen School of Dramatic Art. No director who knows anything about real acting would allow this much self-indulgence to plod on ad infinitum. I’ve got news for Mr. Phoenix, Mr. Anderson and company: on-screen schizophrenia wears out its welcome real fast.There is no dramatic arc in The Master, just 137 minutes of truncated images that provoke but do not add up to a satisfying whole. Plus, the visuals are a deadly bore. Despite the undeserved praise some critics have lavished on the director for filming the whole thing in 65-millimeter, the expensive process is wasted on an endless parade of debilitating and annoying close-ups. 137 minutes of Joaquin Phoenix’s nose hairs is not my idea of appetizing.
Call The Master whatever you want, but lobotomized catatonia from what I call the New Hacks can never take the place of well-made narrative films about real people that tell profound stories for a broader and more sophisticated audience. Fads come and go, but as Walter Kerr used to say, “I’ll yell tripe whenever tripe is served.”
Running Time 137 minutes
Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams