Friday, November 15, 2013

Film Friday: The Master (2012)

I’m going to save you two hours of your life: don’t see this film. This isn’t a film, it’s an exercise in acting. It’s a meandering biography of an unlikable fictional character and it tries to explain its own indulgences as being an examination of post traumatic stress syndrome. It’s critic bait.

** Spoiler Alert **

The Master was marketed as being a thinly-veiled, warts-and-all unauthorized biography of L. Ron Hubbard. Actually, let me rephrase that. The Master was marketed as NOT being a thinly-veiled, warts-and-all unauthorized biography of L. Ron Hubbard... wink wink. They even went so far as to mention at every turn that Scientologists were upset about what this film would reveal and the director personally screened the film for Tom Cruise as a peace offering. Essentially, they sold this as a Scientology exposé by denying that’s what it was.

Well, I don’t know if the character of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is anything like L. Ron Hubbard, but it doesn’t really matter. He never purports to run a religion. The film doesn’t delve into whatever Scientology is really about. And the film only focuses on Dodd tangentially.
What this film is about is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a sex-obsessed, alcoholic World War II vet. The story opens with Freddie in the Navy where he seems like a weirdo who humps a sand sculpture. Quell gets discharged and we’re told he has been diagnosed with a condition that the public will consider “cowardice.” They are talking about post traumatic stress syndrome, though they don’t name it. Quell then gets a series of jobs and ruins them all with bizarre acts like picking a fight with a customer in a department store. He romances a couple women and leaves them. Then he kills a Mexican farm worker in Salinas with bad moonshine, and he hides on a ship to escape.
It turns out this ship is being captained by Lancaster Dodd, who runs a sort of cult that seems to be based around garbage psychology. In fact, the way Dodd comes across is as a caricature of a Hollywood Psychiatrist who does bizarre things like ask the same question twenty times just to test your answer and then asks you how you feel. It’s nonsense.

Dodd befriends Freddie and takes him in. Freddie then repeatedly defends Dodd from disloyal followers and outside skeptics by beating them up as Dodd moves pointlessly through the plot. If he’s building a church, you don’t see it. All you see is the interaction of Dodd and Freddie and Freddie fighting people who denigrate Dodd. Eventually, the film ends at an arbitrary point in Freddie’s life.
Why This Sucks
Let me start by telling you how most critics responded, because that might tell you what the problem is here. No doubt they watched this film having no idea what was going on. Little is explained and the focus of the film is on Freddie’s erratic behavior, which is basically the entirety of the plot. Then the credits start rolling. The critics look around and see the angry looks on the faces of the proles, so they instinctively jump up and applaud like Ruby Rhod’s sycophants in The Fifth Element:
“Oh my! Now I know what anguish feels like!” gushes one critic.

“I have truly learned something about the human condition!” gushes another.

“Yes, I am a better person for watching this film,” replies the first.
Meanwhile, the actors are giving interviews in which they all say, “I wanted to do this because this is a real actor’s film.” Translation: It’s melodrama pretending to be insightful. The public? Well, this $32 million film grossed all of $28 million and it wouldn’t have done that without the deception of the supposed Scientology exposé.

Here’s the thing. Biographies are often lousy films because a human life is not amenable to compelling storytelling. Sure, there are parts of our lives that would make excellent stories, but not our whole lives at once. So from the get go, this is problematic being essentially a biography. Director Paul Thomas Anderson tries to fix this by limiting the film to a small time period in Freddie’s life: the relationship between Freddie and Dodd. Unfortunately, Anderson still fails to give us a compelling storyline. Instead, we just see a series of five or six minute long incidents that involve Freddie misbehaving and Dodd responding to that. So again, there is no real plot... it’s just an outline of moments, and the moments are so small and insignificant that they don’t form a plot, just a picture of Freddie as pathetic.
This is a real lost opportunity given the suggestion that the film was a thinly-veiled exposé on Scientology. If the film had been about Dodd or the construction of his cult, then it might have been interesting. You could watch step by step as the group is formed, expands and corrupts. But it’s not. To the contrary, you barely get a sense that Dodd is anything more than a blowhard surrounded by a handful of friends. You get a couple hints that he’s a fraud, but nothing clear. You learn nothing about his organization or its scope. Instead, you just get the biography on a fictional person who is only tangential to the exposé.

Even worse, the film tries a couple times to wedge in this idea that the reason Freddie is so pathetic is that he’s suffering from his exposure to war. This is a popular theme in Hollywood right now and they are trying to work it into films, particularly films about World War II. Thus, characters periodically say things like, “The war taught us to fight, and now that’s all we know.” But see, here’s the problem: (1) we never get a baseline to tell us that Freddie wasn’t pathetic before, and (2) his only evidence of having mental problems is that he’s a belligerent assh*le. So that doesn’t wash. Nor is any real point made about this, e.g. there’s no solution offered, so it feels gratuitous.
To add insult to injury, the film ends in a way which implies that the whole thing was a dream Freddie had as he humped a sand sculpture... clearly an analogy of what the film is doing to the audience.

This film goes wrong on so many levels. For one thing, it never builds a plot. It wrongly assumes that a series of five minute vignettes is good enough. And while that can work if the vignettes are interesting, these aren’t. Rather than being mini-stories, these vignettes are just moments of Freddie misbehaving. It doesn’t help that Freddie isn’t a real person either or that he ends up being tangential to the thing that was used to hook people into seeing the movie. Even worse, little is communicated to the audience. There are long periods without dialog, the characters don’t explain what is going on around them or in their lives, and even the relationships of the characters aren’t clear. Nor does it help that all this craziness Freddie does might have been shocking to an audience in the 1950s, but reeks of Oscar-bait acting today.

Unless you need to see an example of crazy, say to help you fail a disability test, then avoid this film.


tryanmax said...

Wait. Does he really hump a sand sculpture? I mean, I'm guessing he must because that's a euphemism I've never heard before otherwise. And yet, I must ask, does he really hump a sand sculpture?

AndrewPrice said...

Yes. Some of the sailors sculpt a woman in the sand and he jumps on top of it and starts humping it. It's one of those scenes that probably sounded better on paper than it turns out on film. And at the end, you see him laying on it, which implies the whole fricken film was a dream.

tryanmax said...

I feel bad for you. Here is a short film by Wes Anderson to make you feel better: LINK I thought it was quite cute.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks. I should have skipped this one, but I was actually hoping for something interesting. I'll check out the Anderson thing a little later. :)

Anonymous said...

Well, on the plus side (this won't be long), the film was actually shot in 65mm and looks absolutely gorgeous in HD. And Philip Seymour Hoffman is entertaining as always.

But I have no frickin' idea what P.T. Anderson was trying to do with this movie! It's such a disappointment, coming after There Will Be Blood which I believe is a masterpiece (not to mention his previous movies like Boogie Nights).

Joaquin Phoenix is just too... weird and unlikeable to sympathize with. And yeah, this movie would've been much more interesting had it been about a cult and its mysterious leader. But Phoenix is just so off-putting at times.

And I did read some interesting negative reviews but mostly on the movie geek sites. They called this movie a "rough draft" and I'm inclined to agree.

And while there are times I show my movie geek colors (or even worse, my film school grad colors), this is one of those movies where I feel bad for the "normals" who see it on Netflix and give it a shot. I don't always sympathize with the "normals" who don't get certain movies but this time I do! :-)

Kit said...

So, it has nothing to do with Doctor Who?

PDBronco said...

Or Manos, The Hands of Fate? (I was hearing Torgo music in my head the whole time I was reading this article.)

Backthrow said...

I'd be more apt to be suckered into seeing it, if it had 'Ninja' added somewhere in the title, and a Roman numeral.

All seriousness aside, I always tread lightly when Philip Seymour Hoffman headlines a film (even though this film apparently follows Phoenix's character far more). He's a good actor, but one of my worst, most pointless film experiences ever was when I rented the Hoffman flick, LOVE LIZA (2002), more critic bait about a widower whose life goes on a further downward spiral as his depression leads to his becoming addicted to huffing model airplane fuel. There's nothing more to the film than that, just watching a self-pitying loser on his way down for 90 minutes. Ugh.

I think I just ruined my day by briefly recalling the film, in passing.

Oh, wait, maybe if I watch this...

Ah... now I feel much better! Thanks, movie aspirin! :7)

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, Not as much as you might think.

AndrewPrice said...

PDBronco, Nothing is Manos bad, but that said, at least Manos had a plot. The plot here was really "two guys who get along for some period of time even though they're both jerks."

About the only good thing I can say for this film is that it is very beautifully shot.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I agree. This film is beautifully shot, but beyond that it feels like a rough draft. And Phoenix is very off-putting. In scene after scene you just feel like, "this isn't someone I want to know." And the only reason the other characters stick with him is because they are in the same film.

Agreed on There Will Be Blood. It's a movie I don't enjoy watching, per se, but it's definitely something I'm glad I've seen and it comes across to me as rather brilliant. This one comes across as a mess. This one comes across like they forgot their script and they just decide to wing each scene and then didn't even bother trying to cut it into a story. Oh look, he's being obnoxious here... now he's being obnoxious there... now he's being obnoxious over here.

This should have been a good film, but it wasn't because they totally focused on the wrong things.

AndrewPrice said...

Backthrow, There's nothing more to the film than that, just watching a self-pitying loser on his way down for 90 minutes.

That sums this film up too, only it's two hours long and you can add erratic and belligerent to self-pitying.

Hoffman is good in this, though he feels like he's trying too hard to project "I am someone with authority" every time he speaks. The problem is that while he's doing whatever he's doing, which might be interesting, we instead have Freddie out on the porch throwing punches as a guy who says he doesn't think Hoffman is legit. Then we only see Hoffman when he comes out to see what is going on.

Individualist said...


Dr. Who? Wait is Tom Cruise really the Master.... <>

Well I can't say it all that much of a shock in retrospect.

Anonymous said...

On an unrelated note (well, it's kinda movie-related at least), has anyone seen what San Francisco and the Make-a-Wish Foundation are doing for a poor kid with cancer?

It's enough to make you cry! (in a good way) Cick here.

AndrewPrice said...

Indi, That wouldn't surprise me either.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, That's really cool! :)

Tennessee Jed said...

that's a shame since Hoffman and Phoenix can do great things with the right material. I'll skip this, and go see Peter Berg's "Lone Survivor."

T-Rav said...

Isn't "weirdo who humps a sand sculpture" kind of redundant? :-P

It's too bad, because I rather like Amy Adams and she was said to be really good in this movie. Which I guess she still might be, but if it's crap overall, that doesn't help.

Anyway, this doesn't hold much appeal for me as a Scientology expose, because I've heard enough stories from insiders about the real deal to make your toes curl. Truth really is stranger than fiction, or at least Hollywood fiction.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Agreed. I am a fan of both Hoffman and Phoenix. This one just didn't work.

I've heard that "Lone Survivor" should be an excellent (and conservative) film.

Rustbelt said...

Andrew, if this movie is half as bad as you described, then you've really taken a bullet for the team. Wait, I take that back. You've taken a 'Twilight' sequel-sized cannon for the team. Oh, it's true...

In case you're still recovering, (and to build on Backthrow's comment), here's a look at another 'master' that's just 'bad' enough (yuk, yuk...) to enjoy!

In all seriousness, I'm not sure a genuine expose on Scientology could be made in modern Hollywood, given the cult's connections. Maybe they didn't bother protesting because, after screening it, they knew what a dud it was.
But if you want some good dirt on this cult, I'd recommend Andrew Morton's 'Unauthorized Biography of Tom Cruise.' Some of this stuff seems pretty far-fetched, so keep a grain of salt on hand. But my experience in journalism has taught me that normal might be the exception, not the rule.

All in all, I'll take your advice and dodge this one.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, Probably! LOL!

I've read a lot of bizarre stuff about the history of Scientology. I think an expose would be fascinating to watch. But this was not that. It tried to suggest that it was, but it wasn't. And what it was, wasn't worth seeing.

Adams is ok in this.

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, Master Ninja theme song... buh buh buh, buh buh buh!

"I'm winded... from driving."

This one wasn't bad in the sense of offending you with its stupidity, it just made you ask the question, "Why am I wasting my time with this?" over and over.

I think you're right about Scientology. There's no way modern Hollywood would do a genuine expose. Thanks for the recommendation. I've read some amazing stuff from former insiders, and Cruise is always at the center of it.

Husker said...

I had hoped this movie would have been a good expose on Scientology but it was a waste of celluloid.

I have a particular nut to crack with Scientology because of how it messed up my parents. My dad was a Scientology nut who died when I was still in high school, after all his Scientology antics had impoverished us. At one point I worked 3 jobs, while taking a full class load, to pay the tuition on a rolling basis, to somehow get through college on sheer will power.

Thanks to my dad I have tons of inside info about how messed up it is. I won't say more publicly because the Flag is totally lawsuit happy, and they use the legal system for harassment.

I'll give you one hint though, about why it seems to attract rich white Hollywood liberals like Tom Cruise and John Travolta so much. Hint: The Martigale betting system.

AndrewPrice said...

Husker, I've never met anyone personally who was a Scientologist, but I've read more than enough about them from former insiders and I've watched the way they behaved for decades now. They are bad, bad news.

CrisD said...

We went out for dinner and went to the local theater thinking Joaqin Phoenix(gladiator), Seymour Hoffman (almost always entertaining) and Amy Adams (cute)---How could they mess this up so badly????
I would have loves this movie any ONE of the main characters pulled me in...but yuck...they were unappealing and simply did not "hang right"

Tennessee Jed said...

I'd like to think a film which recounts true acts of heroism by SEALS shouldn't have to be just for conservatives ..... But the Hollywood left hates the U.S.A. , the military, and anything that makes it appear in a positive light, so , yeah, I,d say it is as long as they didn't re-write the story.

AndrewPrice said...

Cris, That was my thinking too. I thought that with this cast and what sounded like an interesting idea, it would turn out to be pretty good. "What could go wrong?" as people say. Yeah, it went wrong. It just didn't work.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I meant that more along the lines of it's the kind of film conservatives claim Hollywood doesn't make. So we'll see if conservatives support it.

Koshcat said...

humping a sand sculpture? Except for pee wee doing it in a Porky's film, I can't ever imagine how this would be seen as a smart move in any movie.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, I think that was the point. It was supposed to be one of those scenes that just felt wrong and shows you right away that Freddie was messed up.

Glenn said...

Andrew, unfortunately your warning came too late for me. I watched this turkey a few months ago expecting a tense drama showing the clash between the cult's teachings and the mainstream, but it turned out to be the kind of movie the word "turkey" was invented for.

Here's a typical scene that made my blood boil.

A scene out in the desert of Arizona has Dodd, sitting on his motorcycle, breathlessly telling his daughter, her husband and Freddie, that the game is to pick a point and drive there as fast as you can. So, we get a scene of Dodd driving his motor bike as fast as he can. When he returns, Freddy picks a point and drives there as fast as he can, interspersed with Dodd in extreme close-up stating, "He's going very fast." So what's the point of this scene? Beats me. It feels like it's just dropped into the movie to give all the intellectual snobs a reason to proclaim how deep and meaningful the movie is, as if we've witnessed some metaphysical secret. However, chop this scene from the movie and nothing changes. It's nothing but smoke and mirrors from a director who shot the scenes perhaps with some purpose in mind but wasn't able to connect it to the rest of the story in a meaningful way.

What we get is a story about a cult leader who is making up his philosophy as he goes along while using Freddy as a guinea pig that is supposedly helping him find self enlightenment. So he has Freddy walk between a wall and a window over and over again and stating what he feels, while other cult members watch. The character gets quite bored with this after awhile ... and so does anyone watching this turkey (there, I said it again).

Disjointed, purposeless, boring with little development of any character makes The Master a major disappointment. The acting is consistently quite good and the cinematography is excellent, but this movies is only going to be appreciated by those who can find intellectual genius in a painting that consists of one black stripe going from top to bottom on the canvas.

BYTW, Andrew. I've been lurking on this site and your political site for a couple of years now, so I thought it was time I contributed something. Excellent commentary at both sites and your follower's comments are sharp and intelligent. As a Canadian, I follow U.S. politics very closely. I've always admired the American entrepreneurial spirit and it's just criminal the way governments seem determined to destroy the very foundation that has made the country so successful for so long.

AndrewPrice said...

Glenn, Thanks! I'm glad you decided to start commenting! And yeah, I think our commenters are all very sharp. That makes it a lot more fun to do this with so many clever people contributing. :)

I agree about governments. It's amazing the way they seem to want to stop the very people who make the world a better place. That's the problem when rank stupidity, opportunism, greedy and spite all collide... you get a government that wants to take and destroy in the name of making the world more fair. It never seems to dawn on them that they should be lifting people up rather than tearing them down.

On The Master, I totally agree and I almost mentioned both of those scenes! The motorcycle thing was just pointless. So for five minutes, we get to watch both of them in turns ride a motorcycle in a straight line. The characters seem to have no idea why they are doing it except that it wastes time. And the only comment they can make out of it is, "He's going very fast." And I think the adds, "He's very good at this" at some point. Why? There is no reason for this. It adds no meaning, it adds nothing to the plot.

At least the scene with him walking from wall to wall kind of shows how stupid the whole cult is. As you say, it shows that he's making it up as he goes, and he's not even very good at it. But the scene ultimately goes nowhere. There's no revelation out of it. There's no character who calls this into question. Dodd doesn't somehow use this to tighten his grip. It just feels like, "Oh, and they did this too." It's a very frustrating film because all of it feels that way... "oh, and this happened too." There is no sense of structure or purpose.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for saving me two hours Andrew. I never got around to see this movie but had thought that it would be worth a look considering the people involved, now I know to give it a skip.


AndrewPrice said...

You're welcome, Scott. Happy to help. :)

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