Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Run Time: 2 hours 16 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Jesse Plemons
Written & Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood, Punch-Drunk Love, Magnolia, Boogie Nights)
It is a head-scratcher, when the parts don't add up to the sum of the whole.
In the much-anticipated and ballyhooed The Master, you get gorgeous film-making from Paul Thomas Anderson, whose previous films - including There Will Be Blood and Boogie Nights - are considered by some to be examples of master storytelling. His latest film also features an A-list cast turning in award-worthy performances. Yet somehow, someway the end result - The Master - is a confusing jumble of statements and ideas that is occasionally boring and wholly unfulfilling. Is it too much to ask to be entertained?
Joaquin Phoenix is back in the acting world following his fake-hiatus from the profession, chronicled in his 2010 mockumentary I'm Still Here. I for one, am glad to see him back, and as The Master's central character he gives a layered and riveting performance. He plays Freddie Quell, a WW II Navy veteran trying to get on his feet following his time served. He meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman, equally brilliant), an author and the charismatic leader of a cult-like group known as "The Cause."
Whether or not Hoffman's character is based on L. Ron Hubbard - the founder of the Church of Scientology - is up for debate. What point Paul Thomas Anderson is trying to make with this film is also under question.
The film is well-made without it being a good movie. There are many interesting characters - especially the two in which the movie focuses on - but there is little payoff. Most characters have an arc that they follow, and here we are introduced and then just left with them, as they have little to do.
Phoenix is a deeply troubled soul, and Dodd's "Cause" gives him some level of meaning in his life. But we are never given clear insight as to what this Cause is, only cryptic bits of information splattered throughout the film. How people have come to follow such a slick man, who is shown in the film to crack at the slightest amount of skepticism, also seems unrealistic.
More than anything though, most of The Master seems random, and after Freddy is established as an interesting man, the movie focuses mainly on his relationship/friendship with Dodd. Great acting, yes, but interesting drama, hardly. At well over 2 hours, The Master seemed to be drinking the Kool-Aid itself, indulging in the idea that PT Anderson is himself a master, who is trying desperately to weave a spell of hypnosis over his subjects in the audience. To me, the rhythmic beauty of each scene wore thin, and by the end I felt myself closing my eyes and imagining my path out of the theater.
Critics have already began to line up saying that The Master is one of this year's best. It may very well be in the Oscar conversation later this year. But sorry colleagues, The Master is one of those pretentious films that begs for a movie-goer to disregard critical acclaim. The Master is classic critic-bait, but it isn't worthy of much attention at all.
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