Sept. 19 2012 12:00 AM

Missing pieces, disjointed performances fail to keep Anderson's latest film together


Following World War II, Americans began to question the conventions of society as never before, explaining the enormous popularity of novels like Somerset Maugham’s “The Razor’s Edge” and the rise of the self-help book culture. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” explores this national challenge of the status quo through Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a Navy vet who is either unable or unwilling to reintegrate himself back into “normal life.” Quell falls under the spell of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the cryptic and charismatic leader of The Cause, a movement devoted to increasing self-awareness through hypnosis, aggressive questioning and a regime that will supposedly separate human nature from its basest impulses.

Although “The Master” has been touted as a thinly veiled expose of L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, it’s decidedly more complex and challenging than that. Anderson, whose films include “There Will Be Blood,” “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia,” never takes the easy path. “The Master” is a jumbo-sized puzzle with numerous missing pieces that Anderson asks the viewer to fill in. Is Dodd a flamboyant fraud or a visionary? Is Quell truly troubled or merely putting on an act? What’s the story with Dodd’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), whose cool remove could either suggest deep serenity or tightly coiled paranoia? That’s up to the viewer to decide; Dodd is the one providing answers, not Anderson.

The movie unfolds like a 1950s prestige picture, the kind of film that wore its self-importance and sterling credentials as shining badges. Anderson shot “The Master” in 65mm, which gives nearly every scene a lushness and radiance that delights your eyes, even as the drama bedevils your brain. When Quell gets a gig as a portrait photographer in one of those 1940s department stores that looks like the Taj Mahal with cash registers and mannequins, Anderson effortlessly sweeps us into a land of long-lost glamour (backing up the sequence with Ella Fitzgerald divinely crooning “Get Thee Behind Me, Satan” doesn’t hurt a bit). Like Dodd, “The Master” is extraordinarily seductive and alluring.

It’s also a movie that ultimately leaves you unsatisfied. All the skillful foreplay turns out to be a build-up to a letdown. Asking an audience to fill in a few blanks is fine, but there is so much in “The Master” that is left unexplained that the film becomes almost frustratingly opaque.

A large part of the problem lies in Phoenix’s characterization, which aims to be repellant and works all too well. Determined to be eccentric and electrifying, he pulls tricks from a shallow grab bag of tics and mannerisms — placing his hands slightly behind his hips, speaking out of the left side of his crooked mouth and coughing up raspy chuckles. He comes across as a cartoon instead of a character. If this were Phoenix’s final project at the Academy of Overacting, he’d be an honors graduate.

Only when he’s up against Hoffman and Adams does he tone it down slightly, and when he does, “The Master” becomes truly entrancing. Hoffman plays Dodd as a kindly, jovial Wizard of Oz, happily manipulating everyone around him and basking in the admiration of his devotees. When a Philadelphia socialite (Laura Dern) makes the error of pointing out inconsistencies in his work, Dodd explodes in anger and you half expect the screen to crack. Phoenix could take a few lessons from Hoffman’s meticulous modulation of his words and expressions — a few perfectly timed outbursts are far more jolting than continually stomping around, scowling and growling.

Dodd’s techniques are at times ludicrous: “The secret is laughter,” he proclaims at one point. But his questions — which come in one-on-one sessions that mimic the Scientology practice known as “auditing” — are occasionally downright odd. (Sample question: “Do you linger at bus stations for pleasure?”)

Adams is outstanding, carefully and craftily treading the line between sweet-natured spouse and secretive dragon-lady. “This is something you do for a billion years or not at all,” she snaps when Quell’s faith begins to falter. “This isn’t fashion.” 

Her husband may be the one pitching the snake oil, but Peggy is unquestionably the engine that keeps the show on the road. In one of the film’s most astonishing scenes, she dictates the text of Dodd’s next book while he obediently types away. This makes you wonder if perhaps Anderson was telling the wrong tale, if the movie wouldn’t have been stronger and more disturbing if he had zeroed in on the eerie relationship of Dodd and Peggy and moved Quell to the sidelines. While Anderson has made a movie with the look of a masterpiece, “The Master,” like Dodd’s phony-baloney philosophies, doesn’t always hang together.