Posted September 20, 2012 by William Dunmyer in Drama

The Master: Beautifully Filmed But Thin on Ideas

Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” doesn’t just have a bland title; it’s also bland when it comes to ideas. Anderson is clearly interested in L. Ron Hubbard and the religion (if you can call it that) that he founded. I am too. I think Hubbard is one of the most fascinating figures of the 20th century. But Anderson doesn’t have anything significant to say about Hubbard or his followers. “The Master” just describes its subject. It doesn’t really have substance as a work of art. In the immortal words of Gertrude Stein, there’s no there there.

It is beautifully filmed, and its descriptions of Hubbard and the Scientology movement are interesting. It also surprisingly held my interest for the long running time (almost two-and-a-half hours). But ultimately I felt it never produced significant insights. It doesn’t even raise many interesting questions. It just describes. There is a lot of gripping description but not much more than that.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the thinker (Hubbard). Amy Adams plays his wife. Joaquin Phoenix (trying to resurrect his career after the fiasco of “I’m Still Here,” his idiotic faux-documentary from 2010) plays a hyper-active Navy veteran trying to reintegrate into American society at the end of WWII. The film is particularly interested in the surprising bond that develops between this lonely, alcoholic ex-sailor and “the Master.” But nothing significant ever gets said about this bond. It’s just described.

Phoenix’s performance is often quite irritating. Most times it appears he is attempting to do 1950s-style Method acting, with a kinetic, body-shaking style. This often came across to me like a narcissistic college student in his first Acting class impersonating Marlon Brando. Phoenix is not so much an actor as a good impersonator. Making matters worse is the fact that Phoenix speaks most of his lines through one side of his mouth. Half his lines are hard to decipher. I got so sick of struggling to understand him.

Much easier to understand are Hoffman and Adams. They give crystal-clear, open performances that often shimmer with inspiration. I loved how Adams brought fire and power to her role. Wives of leaders are often throw-away roles, but Adams brings this character to ferocious life. Often it seems that she’s more the driving force behind Scientology than her husband is. She’s the one driving him to write the books.

But “The Master” never really comes together. It meanders around as aimlessly as the Phoenix character. Sometimes aimlessness is depicted in a compelling way, such as in Kenneth Lonergan’s rich and original film from 2000, “You Can Count on Me,” which launched Mark Ruffalo’s career. But this isn’t a stirring exploration of a lost soul. It’s a feckless one that only scratches surfaces.

It’s a disappointing follow-up to Anderson’s far more trenchant and penetrating “There Will Be Blood” (2007). But Anderson remains one of America’s most interesting filmmakers. “The Master” may not be a home run, but at least Anderson directs his attention to interesting subjects and is not just producing popcorn movies. Anderson does not want to be a billionaire; he wants to be an artist. In that sense, he is a treasure in this age of empty commercialism.

William Dunmyer

William Dunmyer is a lifelong cinephile who fell in love with movies at about the age of 5. He lives in New York City.