2 and 1/2 stars out of 4
Despite making just six movies (mostly poor box-office performers) in 16 years, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson has been afforded a level of fawning critical praise and drooling industry recognition usually reserved for guys like Hitchcock, Scorsese and Spielberg. He is one of the very few filmmakers given final cut authority and he exercises that right with each effort. Thomas is a gifted artist but he also needs to latch on to a top-shelf editor (like longtime Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker) and to stop reading his own press clippings.
"The Master" finds Anderson broaching truly ripe subject matter (a cult leader and his followers) and torpedoing it with maddeningly, inconsequential, distracting, navel-gazing narrative drivel. What could have been an amazing 90-minute movie in reality is a tortuously belabored 137-minute "epic" top-heavy with bleary-eyed twaddle and go-nowhere exposition.
Opening in the Pacific toward the end of WWII, "The Master" dedicates its first 30 minutes solely to Freddie (the now unretired Joaquin Phoenix), an antisocial alcoholic soldier with an unquenchable libido and the sexual maturity of an eighth-grader. With his hunched posture, arms akimbo and permanent scowl, Freddie tries with little success to become part of the post-war civilian work force. His hair-trigger temper and violent demeanor essentially prohibit him from settling into anything resembling a normal life and he drifts from one short-lived job to another while leaving vast quantities of enemies in his wake.
Not long after becoming a stowaway on a ship hosting a wedding, Freddie meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), aka the Master. Dodd is initially impressed with Freddie's bootlegging talents and after a few minutes in his company views him as a repair project. Dodd is the L. Ron Hubbard-inspired founder of The Cause, a cultish group that believes in past lives, hair-brain theories regarding cancer cures and assorted other cosmic gobbledygook.
Without hesitation, Dodd folds Freddie into his following, much to the chagrin of those closest to him and in particular his third wife Peggy (Amy Adams). Although displaying signs of recent Kool-Aid consumption, the pregnant Peggy is dead-on with her negative viewpoints regarding Freddie which are heard and summarily ignored by Dodd. A man with an ego of gargantuan scale, Dodd neither seeks nor listens to the advice of others and can't stand even the slightest whiff of failure. If he gives up on Freddie -- a clear lost cause from the get-go -- it will be viewed as a severe misstep on multiple levels by his miniscule following.
Anderson lays out a great premise with "The Master." A lost and malleable soul not so much in search of a greater purpose who stumbles upon one in the form of a charismatic magnet of a father figure who says all of the right things at exactly the right time (at least for him).
Mistakenly emulating both Terrence Malick and to a lesser extent, Stanley Kubrick, Anderson pads the running time with long stretches of scenes that add little to nothing -- and sometimes detract -- from the storytelling. A minute here or there depicting the wake of a boat might look good onscreen but 15 minutes worth ultimately reveal a filmmaker lacking full bite and merely killing time.
With each subsequent effort (save for the economical "Punch-Drunk Love"), Anderson continues to buy into and try to pitch the audience the premise that less is more and even lesser is better. But in Anderson's case, the "less" is with the story made all the more wan and wanting when lengthened into interminable stretches of nothingness.
Keeping our eyes propped open is the knowledge that Anderson is fond of the gotcha punctuation. A conversion or non-verbal passage quells with a violent burst of some sort or another and the two co-leads are quite good at it, particularly Hoffman. These dozen or so occurrences not only provide much needed jolts but also deliver the too brief bits of comic relief.
"The Master" is not going to win over anyone who isn't already an Anderson devotee and will likely shrink their numbers, if only just a smidgen. (The Weinstein Company)