Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Master

A powerful sense of letdown hangs over the pseudonymous Scientology prehistory “The Master.” It’s impossible not to wonder what more might have come of the mating of director Paul Thomas Anderson with the self-made myth of the certifiable failed science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. Anderson has made several terrific films and at least one masterpiece, “Magnolia.” He’s a director of towering, Tarantino-esque vision, but throughout “The Master” his set pieces lack the impact to match their solemnity. At 138 minutes, I couldn’t wait for it to end.

Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Lancaster Dodd, whose self-improvement book “The Cause” has just begun to win over a critical mass of followers as the movie opens in 1950. Joaquin Phoenix co-stars as Freddie Quell, a naval hero in WWII who now drifts from town to town and job to job, drinking copious amounts of concoctions that would kill other men (his ingredients include paint thinner and photo-developing solution) and acting out his hypersexuality and violent tendencies in all manner of socially inappropriate ways.

Actually, the movie is more Phoenix’s than Hoffman’s, which is the first problem. Not because Phoenix isn’t equally effective – it’s impossible to look away from either man (though at times you’ll want to), and Phoenix’s performance requires an especial degree of physical commitment – but because we’re here to see Hubbard, not a troubled sailor who never gets over the underage girlfriend he left behind. The two meet when Freddie stows away on a ship captained by Dodd (maritime influences figure prominently in Scientology), who (while Freddie’s sleeping) drinks from his flask and likes the stuff so much he keeps him around to mix up more.

Slowly, Dodd introduces Freddie to some of the methods that become the basis of Scientology: “processing” (i.e., auditing), impossible and crazy-making “applications” in which the subject is to go minutes at a time without blinking or reacting to stimuli. In one party game, Freddie must walk back and forth across a large room hundreds of times with his eyes closed, describing the feeling of a window and a wooden wall even after the other guests have left for lunch.

But there’s not enough of this material, and though Dodd is obviously deeply deranged himself, there’s almost nothing in “The Master” that gets at the insidious menace of the man. A five-minute Internet search turns up concepts (the “Fair Game” policy by which naysayers are to be destroyed at all costs) and quotations (“If a man really wanted to make a million dollars, the best way to do it would be start his own religion”) that show a fully intentional mind at work. Hoffman, however riveting, portrays Dodd as a man searching for himself as much as creating himself.

I like Amy Adams, but she’s out of her league with these commanding actors and badly miscast as Dodd’s wife, Mary Sue, a Helga Zepp-LaRouche figure who believes the best defense is a good offense. (Other touches – classical music overlays, Dodd’s singing in his climactic scene with Freddie – also suggest a fusion of LaRouche with Hubbard.) The part is static, with no development from Mary Sue’s first scene to her last. Anderson also does nothing with the character of Dodd’s son, Val. A whole movie could be made about L. Ron Hubbard’s gay son, Quentin, who, hated by his ashamed father, killed himself in 1976. At least Val gets the best line in the movie: “He’s making this all up as he goes along,” he tells Freddie, who’s ever more desperate to believe. “You do know that, right?”

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