Master Strokes, No Masterpiece
Paul Thomas Anderson has made a career of depicting what befell the people who took up Horace Greeley’s cry to go West for “manifest destiny”. Anderson is smart enough to know that good fortune is different from getting what you want. The dark side of the American dream started with the unfortunate gamblers in “Hard Eight” and peaked with the parable of oilmen in “There Will Be Blood”. In-between were the Angelinos in the skin game, “Boogie Nights” and their counterparts in the legitimate show business, “Magnolia”; not to mention those residents who aren’t even in entertainment, “Punch Drunk Love”. We see real seekers of fortune before fame; all slowly roasting in the eternal sunshine. The light has the ability to tan, but is also burns. No popular filmmaker has so elegantly painted these desperate, lonely dreamscape refugees. Anderson’s latest, “The Master”, is a spiritual journey: A reflective meditation on a California religion with a genuine prophet for profit. The result is exquisite, masterful and disappointing.
The plotline is simple: imagine if a shell-shocked Dean Moriarty, Kerouac’s “On the Road” party animal, had been taken in by L. Ron Hubbard instead of Sal Paradise. Anderson’s master is more cerebral than the Beats. He likes his booze and girls but this trip is more of a mindgame than a brawl. He also prefers yachts to hitchhiking and blue haired ladies to pool room hookers. In a sense this might be one of the problems as the strongest moments of the film are when Joaquin Phoenix goes “animal”. Joaquin steals this film just as Daniel Day Lewis hijacks “There Will Be Blood”. The very elaborate biographical details and intricate metaphysical/psychological journey take a back seat to Joaquin being the embodiment of that uniquely American blend of emptiness and terror. You feel bad for the war-scarred PTSD sentimental veteran; but you also realize he might resort to mass murder and cannibalism. (Note: he does admit to incest). Anderson might have done well to eliminate all dialogue except for Joaquin’s laugh. That sound is the embodiment of Anderson’s career: a scary combination of innocence snuffed out by unspeakable trauma leading to nefarious delusional quests. When you hear Joaquin guffawing you know that even a legitimate savior would throw up his hands in an act of futility.
This film’s savior is too busy listening to his own voice to notice his apostle’s lack of piety and sanity. Philip Seymour Hoffman reprises his role as the alcohol infused charismatic intellectual trickster suckering a callow captive; but I much preferred him as Truman Capote. He was believable as the troubled author; less so as the troubled author/cult-leader. Unfortunately the performances are in the same key with swings of rapier-wit spiced with hatred and rage fueled by unbridled narcissism. His anger is steeped in weakness– hence a desire to have a good guard dog; i.e. Joaquin. Capote didn’t need a bodyguard – he was smarter and funnier hence better able to defend himself as long as he was in the “right” circles. It isn’t merely that Capote was a “better” character. Hoffman fails to master this master. It was pitch perfect… to a fault. Having recently seen a YouTube video of Hubbard during this period it is apparent that Hoffman did his homework. He was the person he was supposed to be… but it isn’t enough to save the film. This speaks to the overall problem – is this who the audience wanted?
There is an odd dreariness about "The Master" based in its "realism". This comes front and center when faced with an odd paradox in non-animated dramatic films: Whereas animators fear the “uncanny valley” – audience revulsion at slightly imperfect replication of human beings – this turns out to be the holy grail for most dramatic features. Directors strive for “realism”. Most fall short. But there is an elite group of directors, including Anderson, who have mastered the craft. Their challenge is to bend “realism” towards drama. It’s a peculiar criticism as the film has a lyrical quality that ads flourish to the meticulous stagecraft… but does it “sing”? Joaquin is outstanding. Hoffman is too perfect. Amy Adams is a brilliant Lady Macbeth. Unfortunately Anderson is no Shakespeare. He is closer to Capote in capturing the minor key of the American Zeitgeist. Capote, however, made you care about the cold blooded killers.
The penultimate scene in the movie shows the prodigal son returning to face a father who has made his mark. The master has a “real” following and has made a dent in the establishment he seeks to conquer. This scene is the dénouement of this intricate character study. The two protagonists are coming together to face their demons and reconcile their improbable friendship/bond/love affair. They face an unpleasant reality. There is genuine affection – a marvel given the psychopathic profiles of each of these protagonists – but in the end the stars are not in their favor. This is ironic as the master’s re-incarnation cosmology usually has the hopeful resonance found in supermarket self help books. The master, with tears in his eyes, explains that if they meet again in future lives, they will be mortal enemies. Despite all the heart-wrenching dialogue and exquisite performances – the film was dead. I felt nothing. I was longing for the scenes in which Joaquin delivers the blows, literally, to all the establishment types who looked down on him and his god: Joaquin assaults a paradigm of respectability while working as a department store photographer. (The victims crime was wanting a picture portrait for his wife.) Joaquin throws an apple at a questioner at the NY blue blood reception before stalking him and laying him out; Joaquin pummeling the skeptic at the book review party; Joaquin bashing his cage in the Philadelphia prison. These moments give life to a moribund plot loaded with gullible acolytes and unsympathetic marks.
This is really a film about misfits railing against post war Pax Americana. “The Master” lacks a Ginsberg howl or a James Dean smirk or a Kerouac belch. You want to join forces with Joaquin on the anti-hero journey but in the end Hoffman only brings a real life ambivalence about the sadness of con-men. There is a moment during one of the master’s sermons when he comes up with the answer of the moment. “Laughter”. That is the key “laughter”. Joaquin isn’t impressed. This nugget of wisdom is met with a disillusioned grimace. Perhaps Hoffman’s son is right: “He’s just making it up as he goes along”. At this point I genuinely missed Joaquin’s laugh. It would sooth Joaquin’s physical embodiment of brokenness. All the fairy tales of “that one true love” or “the one man who has ALL the answers” are encapsulated in the hunched broken man. It’s a trauma appropriately illustrated in adolescents where there is the hope of knowledge gained and a long road ahead. Middle aged men faced with these travails are pathetic, not tragic. That isn’t to say it is impossible to create a solid drama of their plight.
The spiritual grandfather of “The Master” would be “The Misfits”. This is another paean to Western oddballs. Their journey into the desert isn’t about digging up a copy of a self-composed sacred text or letting a motorcycle rip. Clark Gable and company are out to re-live their Western dreams by turning wild horses into dog food. Marilyn Monroe puts her foot down by screaming bloody murder. You shouldn’t care… but you do. When Montgomery Cliff, who bears a striking resemblance to Joaquin, is on the payphone with his mother you know it’s pathetic… but you care. Anderson’s “The Master” has it’s moments when the sheer absurdity of the character’s actions trigger empathy and awe. Hoffman dutifully poses for a photographic portrait by Joaquin. He is sweating which is a subtle reference to Joaquin’s previous portrait debacle in which he causes the subject to sweat by pushing the lights up against the poor victim's face. In this case Hoffman provides his own water works. He’s channeling the corporate boardroom seriousness of the era. He desperately wants all those East Coast establishment types to take him seriously. He musters all his strength and Joaquin takes the shot. It’s the kind of small silent moment that makes you, ever so briefly, believe in the film by siding with the lunatic heroes. It goes beyond being clever and well crafted…. It makes you smile… maybe even laugh. In the end that’s what it’s all about.