Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern
Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5)
The new film from Paul Thomas Anderson has been in release for a few weeks now, and has generally been highly acclaimed. It features strong acting and assured direction, and it gives a viewer a lot to contemplate among its various scenes and threads. Unfortunately, it fails to cohere in any meaningful way and ultimately is a disappointing movie disguising its refusal to tell an actual story as high art.
Joaquin Phoenix acts his heart out as a former Navy sailor with undefined mental and emotional problems (and a family history of mental illness). The actor adopts such an oddball physicality that it’s distracting–silent scenery-chewing, a friend of mine said–but there’s no denying that he delivers a committed, arresting performance. Similarly, Philip Seymour Hoffman is amazing as the L. Ron Hubbard analogue Lancaster Dodd, a charlatan cult leader who seems to be making up his science-fiction religion one page at a time. The commitment of the cast, the stately pacing and the thoroughly convincing recreation of the early 1950s are all great stuff. In service of what, though?
The film begins and ends at a random point in Phoenix’s life, and while we can speak of what he shared with Hoffman, and what their various scenes together may have meant, it comes to nothing. The film scores further demerits for one-scene plot threads that are immediately abandoned (two cases of Dodd family women with their hands in a man’s lap serve as perfect examples.
You know how biopics can sometimes seem devoid of drama because, by following a real life, the movie will lack the sharp dramatic tension of fiction? That’s what’s going on here, even though The Master is fictional. There’s nothing wrong with telling stories, even in your finely crafted art films.