Dozens of so-called critics have grandiosely labeled Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” as the highest of high art, even though many of them freely admit that the post-war drama is often incomprehensible. Well, they’re right about that. It makes absolutely no sense. But they’re dead wrong in heaping praise upon a perverted “sausage party” in which the writer-director fully indulges his obsession with male genitalia.
If you’ve long been craving the opportunity to watch stars Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman empty their bladders and polish their weenies, P.T. is readily at your service, offering not just those “treats,” but also the chance to watch the overrated Phoenix hump a sand sculpture molded in the shape of an anatomically correct woman. Yes, going to the beach will never be the same again. Thanks, P.T. And thank you for wasting nearly 2½ hours of my life inundating me with a succession of increasingly bizarre scenes in which Phoenix wildly overacts and Hoffman babbles on esoterically while sounding as if he swallowed too many Xanax.
To think, I had such high hopes for “The Master,” or, as I like to call it, “The Masturbators.” It was billed as a thinly veiled slam on Scientology and its founder, sci-fi writer L. Ron Hubbard, the man who wrote the novel that inspired “Battlefield Earth,” one of the worst Hollywood movies ever made. And sure enough, Hoffman plays a self-aggrandizing sci-fi hack who in the months immediately following World War II starts a cult religion he fondly refers to as “The Cause.” And as part of that movement, he enlists many of the tenets of Hubbard’s “Dianetics,” including “processing” (Anderson’s word for Scientology’s “auditing”) and a belief that the key to happiness is erasing the copious amounts of bad karma you’ve accumulated over the centuries. But that’s where the similarities end and Anderson’s self-indulgence begins. He knows no bounds, either, filling the screen with painstakingly composed shots vividly evoking the sights, sounds and moods of 1950s America. Yet, while these images are breathtaking to behold, they are stunningly empty of humanity. Sure, there are actors populating these moving snapshots, but the people they are portraying have zero resemblance to anyone in the real world.
They are all figments of Anderson’s shockingly limited imagination. They look like humans, but they exist in a pretentious microcosm in which everyone walks and talks in actorly mannerisms. Every word, every beat feels conspicuously premeditated. And that includes Phoenix, turning beet red as he goes off on a succession of increasingly annoying manic rants, busting chops, toilets and our spirits. It’s an embarrassingly bad performance, and he has no one to blame but Anderson, who never once dares to rein in his wildly emoting star. As a result, you’re never willing to invest in his character, Freddy Quell, an irate, chronically depressed WWII vet who hates everyone and everything.
Page 2 of 2 - Hoffman fares only slightly better as Freddy’s mentor, the slick manipulator, Lancaster Dodd. But that’s only because Hoffman is seldom called upon to raise his steady, somnambulant voice above a whisper, as Dodd spouts his dime-store philosophies about the cruel world from which he offers a seemingly easy escape. No one is immune to Dodd’s charm and charisma, except Freddy of course, a bottomless pit of anger who intrigues Dodd because he’s convinced that Freddy will be the toughest nut he’ll ever have to crack. If he can cure Freddy of his ills, he can cure anyone.
Their dynamic is interesting for a while, as Dodd’s yang tussles – often violently -- with Freddy’s yin. But their heated, homoerotic confrontations quickly grow repetitive and dull, pulling you straight out of the movie. At least those moments are preferable to the aforementioned scenes of Phoenix humping sand before walking up to the water’s edge to slap his haddock, or of the rotund Hoffman bent over a sink pleasuring himself while his wife (Amy Adams) cheers him on to the finish. Now that’s what I call entertainment, or at least Anderson does.
I can’t help but mourn the talented craftsman who gave us such divergent masterpieces as “Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia” and “Punch-Drunk Love.” Of late, Anderson has become increasingly decadent, moving further and further away from the mainstream, much to his detriment. His brainwashed fans may think him daring and great, but film buffs craving stories with meaning and a purpose, not to mention relatable characters, will only walk away from “The Master” justifiably frustrated and completely unfulfilled, thus rendering Anderson a cult of one.
THE MASTER (R for sexual content, graphic nudity and language.) Cast includes Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams. Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. 2 stars out of 4.