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Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Master Review: What can you do to a Drunken Sailor?

Paul. Thomas. Anderson. After seeing nearly all his films at least once, I still have no idea what to make of him. Is he a genius? I'm not sure. Is he overrated? Maybe just a little. Do I actually enjoy his work? ...No. But that doesn't mean he isn't a once in a generation auteur. His dedication to ponderous, epic, and original character studies is something I deeply respect. So you should defiantly check out The Master, but you'd better know exactly what you're getting into. 

I'm sure you've heard this is an "Anti-Scientology" movie. Hmmm, I'll get to that. Philip Seymour Hoffman is obviously playing a L. Ron Hubbard allegory, but that really isn't what this film focuses on. This is an anti-alcoholism film and in that regard it's one of the greatest ever made. Joaquin Phoenix's performance is terrifying. I was planning on having a beer or two to get through the middle, but I'll have trouble touching the stuff for weeks now. His Freddie Quell isn't played "drunk" he's played as a cripplingly dependent addict that happens to drink. I mean this guy is swiping medical grade rubbing alcohol off nurse's carts and mixing cocktails with paint thinner. Whenever the film focuses solely on Freddie's slow decent into homelessness, it's riveting. But here's the rub... that's only the first 20 minutes. Though it's a sublime 20 minutes.

Somewhere in between realism and broad satire you see the various jobs Freddie flits through after leaving the Navy. I didn't know whether I was supposed to think his self destructive misery was funny or not, but there is a point where you stop feeling sorry for him. He's dim, he's crazy, and he clearly doesn't belong on his own. Eventually he stows away on the eponymous master's boat, (first of many subtle Scientology tip offs) unsure with what Lancaster Dodd really wants from him. He claims it was his bathtub hootch recipes, but it's obvious a person like Dodd doesn't like letting go of people so easily..."influenced."

The plot never develops much more from there, you see a snippet of Freddie's life before the Navy, but the relationship between Freddie and Dodd kinda sits there, puttering around New York and Philadelphia. It becomes a fly on the wall scenario, striving to follow a more biographical structure than a traditional three acts. Everything that goes on is interesting by itself, but it sags when strung together. You watch a bunch of static characters scheme schemes that go nowhere for the remaining hour and a half.  

For a film that started off so aggressive and almost silly, the dry latter two thirds start to seem more and more disappointing. Dodd's wife and son-in-law hate having Freddie in their lives, but Dodd can't get enough of winding him up and watching him dance. Aside form the last ten minutes or so, I just described the entire movie. It's not that it fails in any obvious way, I wouldn't have been surprised if Phoenix walked off with the Oscar, it's just painfully predictable and repetitive.

Also, if you were expecting anything resembling a stance on Scientology you will be doubly disappointed. One dude meekly criticizing Dodd at a party does not a message make. It's impartial to the point of banality. Though there is a kind of Spinal Tap fall from grace thread running through the last half that I thought was cute, but that didn't happen to Scientology. Scientology only got more powerful and lucrative. So as a pure fiction there's nothing this movie says about cult worship that's new, but it does it in style. That's almost just as effective.

But I don't want any of you walking away thinking I said this is a bad film or even a failed experiment. It's impeccably crafted and like nothing you've seen outside of There Will Be Blood. If that's the sort of mood you're in, you'll love The Master... just don't go looking for a masterpiece. See? I could have made a really corny joke just then, I'm getter better.

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