By Eleanor Ringel Cater
In the title role of “The Master,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, Philip Seymour Hoffman is part Elmer Gantry, part Elmer Fudd.
Bruited just about everywhere as a look at the ugly underbelly of Scientology (as opposed to the overbelly…? Or maybe belly just comes to mind because Hoffman shows off a primo paunch), “The Master” culminates in an utterly confounding manner.
But the more I think about it, the more I believe “The Master” is as simple as faith. Misplaced faith, in this case, but still rock-solid simple.
We begin as World War II is ending. Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix, a miscasting problem I’ll touch on later) is an eccentric and usually soused young sailor. True, all the guys are losing it on this Pacific island, but only Freddie humps a big-breasted female made out of sand. Anchors Away indeed.
Cut loose by the Navy, he drifts through post-war America, landing a job as the in-house photographer at a department store. The montage of portraits he takes — in that unreal super-real ‘50s style —is an effortless bit of genius, as telling as it is tossed-off. This is truly how most of us thought we looked — or should look then.
Maybe that’s why the ‘60s seemed such a big deal.
Fired for fisticuffs with a customer, Freddie is again adrift until — like Nick staring at the lights across the water at Gatsby’s place —he’s entranced by a glowing party boat. They’re still dockside, so he climbs aboard.
There, this lost soul meets a man who knows all about souls. However, he doesn’t merely save them; he processes them in the name of his new cult religion. And that name is, The Cause: a deliberately vague belief system presided over by Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), a round man with a squirrelly moustache and a rotund voice (I’d love to see Hoffman do Orson Welles).
Most Internet habitués — reviewers, bloggers and otherwise — have long known to think of Dodd as a stand-in for L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. I have no idea if Anderson’s take on the religion that has snared such glittering stars as Tom Cruise and John Travolta is accurate.
However, that’s not really the point. Though particulars and the film’s time period suggest Scientology, The Cause could be a mish-mash of everything from Scientology to Mayer Baba to Charlie Manson to the Wicked Witch’s Flying Monkeys.
That’s why it’s so funny. Anderson’s attitude is pretty much, seen one cult leader, seen ‘em all. The filmmaker absolutely gets the loony devotion such followers exude — the way they need Dodd to fill their voids and the manner in which he so effortlessly (almost casually) brings them into his embrace.
The only thing one must not do is question — as one wealthy matron (Laura Dern, fabulous) learns. Having opened her house to The Cause and The Causettes (?), she dares interrupt The Master (as Dodd prefers to be called) with a rambling question about a change on page 13 of his new book. Quietly thundering, he makes her wish she hadn’t.
There are three outsiders in this beatific flock. As Dodd’s steely-velvet wife, Amy Adams knows you have to sell tickets to the circus or else the circus ain’t going anywhere. By the end, she’s morphed into a both an immovable object and an irresistible force: part Squeaky Fromme, part Stepford Wife, part “Big Love.”
Next is their son who amiably says he thinks Dad is pretty much making it up as he goes along. No problem, as far as Anderson shows us. Finally, there’s Freddie, who gives himself completely to Dodd, but is still such a psycho, he quivers like a live wire.
I think the movie is supposed to be about the battle between Dodd and Freddie — the Master and the Margarita-maker (one reason Freddie is invited to stay on the party boat is he makes a hell of a drink).
But by casting Phoenix, Anderson recklessly unbalances the picture. It’s possible to do very broad things as an actor — to take huge sloppy risks — while still investing them with a cunning nuance. Daniel Day-Lewis knew how to do this in the magnificent “There Will Be Blood.” So does Hoffman, both here and in earlier Anderson movies like “Magnolia” and “Boogie Nights.”
But Phoenix is all Method-surface. It’s as if he walked over to “Master’s” set from his acting class at Stella Adler’s Studio. The Process — on of the key terms of The Cause — isn’t the answer, any more than The Method was. Theatrically and spiritually, intentionally or not, Phoenix throws everything out of whack.
He doesn’t ruin the movie; he just makes us work harder perhaps, than Anderson intended. Once I got inside the picture’s oddball brain, I couldn’t buy that Hoffman’s supreme huckster would spend any time on someone as broken as Freddie… unless Freddie owned a houseboat or an elegant New York Apartment. Good likker with a moonshine kick just isn’t enough.
Ambiguous and ambitious, “The Master” is sometimes like a recovery gone wrong — which may be why it leaves so many of us shaking our heads as we leave the theatre. But I think that’s exactly what Anderson intended. The Process holds off the chaos, but the chaos never gives up. I’m still shaking my head.