The Master directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, an alleged loose interpretation of the early days of L. Ron Hubbard's Scientology religious movement has been hailed by some reviewers with such overhyped praise that one might think that it is in a class with Michelangelo's painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Since its release, the adoring adulation of some critics has brought people into art houses in record numbers and there is serious Oscar talk in all categories. There is no question that Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and the rest of the cast offer their considerable talents to their roles as written, and the direction and production values are certainly outstanding. Indeed, The Master is, at least technically, worthy of all the praise of film aficionados for its mastery of the cinematic art. There is only one crucial thing missing.
The story it depicts has no narrative drive.
At two and a half hours, it is so overextended that it does not pass "the tush test." It works too hard to be profound and barely rises to the central point it is struggling to make; there are some people who, despite every attempt at brainwashing, are too screwed up with substance abuse, mental problems and childhood traumas to ever succumb to any possibility for submission, to any cause, no matter its methods, no matter its persuasive techniques, however harebrained and irrational.
In a nutshell, The Master, a title that broadcasts its imperial intent, is the story of Freddie Quell, a drunken misfit and mentally unstable Navy veteran played by Phoenix, who improbably stumbles into the arms of Lancaster Dodd, a crackpot leader of a cult called the Cause. The principle of the cult seems to be that all people have led past lives since the beginning of time, and once you are cleansed of these past lives you are clear to pursue your own destiny.
Lancaster Dodd, played with great brio by Philip Seymour Hoffman, uses weird interrogation techniques to allegedly relieve people of these past lives and join with him in his great crusade to free people of any past disturbances caused by these forebears. He is selling the idea that these disturbances are crippling to living individuals and inhibit them from achieving some illusive goal that will save them or the planet or whatever. It is the classic, "follow me, I have the only answer" cult baloney.
The Cause is close enough to the premise of Scientology to pass muster of seeming like a real critique on this following that has attracted the likes of Tom Cruise and John Travolta, their showpiece celebrity converts.
Phoenix's character is a recalcitrant alcoholic whose claim to sanity is spiking whiskey with paint thinner to give it a bigger kick than standard brews, and quite obviously enhancing his propensity for nuttiness, along with a background resume that is a textbook case of child abuse and family dysfunction.
Phoenix gets to play an actor's dream part, lots of visible hysterical bad behavior, much mumbling and sex scenes with well endowed bare breasted women, which he performs so over the top, it becomes eventually predictable and tiresome. Hoffman gets to display his trademark subtlety and is scarily convincing as the cult leader.
The director offers up some odd ensemble scene where Hoffman does a cutesy song and dance routine before a group of sycophants where most of the women are completely naked, making one wonder how they were motivated to strip while the men remain modestly clothed.
It is the kind of scene that can suddenly wake one up from the torpor of watching characters meander through illogical and unmotivated actions, wildly coincidental story elements, confusing flashbacks and endless camera mugging facial shots, some of them so extended that one wonders if the film has mechanically stalled.
Perhaps I am reacting to the adulation being heaped on this film, which I feel is undeserved. On the other hand, I may also be responding to my disappointment of what was a golden opportunity to eviscerate the cult phenomena and the horrific escalation of brainwashing engulfing the world, best exemplified by suicide bombers.
It would have been far more convincing if Phoenix's character was portrayed as less aberrational, far more normal and commonplace, someone who had been inveigled into the cult by Lancaster Dodd's cynical methods, more of a cautionary tale than this hodgepodge of missed signals and distorted and faux profound story-telling.
If there is a lesson to be learned by this film, it is that habitual drunks would be far better off joining a twelve-step program than seeking cure and comfort from a charlatan trying to enrich himself by brainwashing the naïve and unsuspecting into a profit making enterprise that benefits no one except the people who run the outfit.
Warren Adler has just released his 33rd book "The Serpent's Bite." Best known for "The War of the Roses," his masterpiece fictionalization of a macabre divorce turned into the dark comedy box office hit starring Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner and Danny DeVito, Warren Adler quickly became the fountainhead of Hollywood screenplay adaptations, fueling an unprecedented bidding war in a Hollywood commission for his unpublished book "Private Lies". While "The War of the Roses" garnered outstanding box office and critical success with Golden Globe, BAFTA and multiple award nominations internationally, Adler went on to sell movie and film rights for 12 books, all noted for his character driven and masterful storytelling. Produced by Linda Lavin for PBS' American Playhouse series, Adler's "The Sunset Gang" was adapted into a trilogy starring Uta Hagen, Harold Gould and Jerry Stiller, garnering Doris Roberts an Emmy nomination for 'Best Supporting Actress in a Mini-Series.' "The Serpent's Bite" is now available as an e-book and hardback.
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