Hip, hip, hooey

Whatever you do, keep him away from the spinach.

Whatever you do, keep him away from the spinach.

Rated 2.0

In The Master, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson pulls off quite an achievement, one I wouldn’t have thought possible: He makes Amy Adams boring. He doesn’t do Joaquin Phoenix or Philip Seymour Hoffman any favors, either.

Anderson is the indie darling whose filmography consists of more shorts (nine) than features (six) over 24 years, yet he has accrued a reputation for artistry others can only envy; as with Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick, Anderson’s sporadic output is taken by some as a badge of artistic seriousness. Check out his bio on IMDb—the first paragraph alone compares him to Jean Renoir, Max Ophüls, François Truffaut, Martin Scorsese, D.W. Griffith, Robert Altman, Steven Spielberg and Tim Burton. It looks like it could have been written by Anderson’s mother, but it wasn’t—the bio is the work of one Nathan Cox.

The Master will probably do little to dampen Mr. Cox’s enthusiasm. It has the solemn air of imparting great wisdom and a palette of muted colors that evoke Norman Rockwell one minute, Andrew Wyeth the next, Edward Hopper after that, and so on. Plus—just so we don’t look all serious here— a little sex and plenty of tits and ass.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a World War II navy veteran who has trouble adjusting to peacetime. In a quick series of vignettes, we see him go from rehabilitation in a Veterans Affairs hospital to being a portrait photographer in Capwell’s department store in San Francisco and, after beating up a customer who was posing for him, harvesting cabbage in Salinas. Through it all, Freddie plies his one talent, making hard liquor out of whatever ingredients come to hand, including paint thinner.

This ability stands Freddie in good stead when, on the run from his latest anger-management issue, he stows away aboard a luxury yacht (it looks like a converted U.S. Navy minesweeper) sailing from San Diego. There he meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who claims to be “in command” but is actually just borrowing the yacht from one of his rich followers to cruise through the Panama Canal to New York; he likes Freddie’s hooch and wants more.

Dodd—“the master”—is a mixture of snake-oil salesman, self-help guru and religious mystic who spouts the kind of pseudoscientific patter that used to run on Art Bell’s wee-hours radio program—glib mumbo jumbo, always sounding on the verge of being really profound but never getting around to actually making sense. Also on the cruise, along with an array of disciples and relatives, is Dodd’s wife Peggy (Amy Adams—as noted above, boring).

The whole movie, in fact, is a bore, though Anderson’s fans will no doubt find it profoundly poetic. For myself, I checked out mentally about halfway through its 137 lumbering minutes as I pondered Joaquin Phoenix’s idiosyncratic performance. His Freddie is tightly wound, regarding the world through scrunched-up eyes, talking in a barely intelligible mumble through clenched teeth, chin jutting and lips frozen in a permanent curl like a sideways ankh. There was something familiar about it. Who was Phoenix channeling here? Brando? Dean?

Then it hit me: Oh my God, he’s doing Popeye! Playing an ex-sailor with violence issues, all Phoenix (or Anderson) can think to give us is Popeye? Give me a break already.

At that instant, I stopped taking The Master seriously. In this, I was confirmed by a silly scene late in the movie when Freddie, after months or years of estrangement, gets an out-of-the-blue phone call from Dodd. “How did you find me?” he marvels. How indeed—especially since Dodd is calling from England and Freddie is in Philadelphia. In a movie-theater balcony. Where an usher, who evidently knows all the patrons by name, brings him the phone. Contrary to Anderson, movie ushers in the 1950s did not as a rule bring telephones to your seat, even if they knew who and where you were.

Like Lancaster Dodd’s fake-scientific pep talks (the name’s resemblance to Lafayette Ronald Hubbard is probably no coincidence), The Master is an attractively wrapped but thick and indigestible slab of baloney. There’s a con man and charlatan at work here, all right, but it’s not Lancaster Dodd. It’s Paul Thomas Anderson.