The Master Leaves Us Hungry ... for More Resolution

Weinstein Co.
Not quite the Manson family: Hoffman and clan (with Adams at left).
The Dinner: Chicken With Cashew Nuts, at Bell Thai (2211 Fourth Ave.).

The Movie: The Master, at Cinerama (2100 Fourth Ave).

The Screenplate: The first, much-acclaimed entry to the Oscar regatta arrives on a sea of ink that could also float the U.S. Navy vessel on which we meet our hero at the tail end of World War II. Hearing of Japan's surrender on the radio, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and his shipmates immediately go on an ecstatic bender, drinking the alcoholic torpedo juice he carefully drains from the munitions, cavorting like pagans on the beach, and building a fertility idol in the sand. Freddie pretends to hump the supine figure, and the other seamen just watch, growing slightly uncomfortable. All these guys need to get laid, but writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson leaves the sex until more than two hours later, at the very end of the movie, several years later in London. It's frustrating for Freddie, frustrating for us, and Anderson is nothing but a tease in The Master. Just as the Scientology-like cult leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman) withholds his bogus theories and refuses to debate skeptics, Anderson knows the value of mystery. And some may mistake that for genius...

Before we discuss the movie or decide where to eat, at which theater should you see the much-hyped Master? It's also opening at the Guild 45th and Lincoln Square today, but only at Paul Allen's Cinerama can you watch it in 70mm. That fact alone justifies the cost of parking in Belltown, where we'll also search for food nearby.

The Master starts out very strong, introducing its protagonist--like that of There Will Be Blood--in a manner that excludes all outside context. Back in 2007's Blood, all we knew was that Daniel Day-Lewis' prospector was a man determined to extract wealth out of the earth using his hands and iron will. The rest of the movie bore that out, only deepened our initial impression. His was an unbending character that never really changed, lacked Hollywood's precious "arc." Here, it's evident that Phoenix's sailor likes to get drunk on homebrew, he's got a "nervous condition" (mentioned in the Navy hospital before discharge) and has trouble fitting back into society. And neither does he really change in The Master. The difference, of course, is that Daniel Plainview becomes a fabulously wealthy oilman whose ambition destroys his family. Freddie Quell remains, well, Freddie Quell.

Closer to Plainview in spirit may be Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman's character), a self-made man whose methods may also be criminal, who's also certainly a megalomaniac. He adopts Freddie as a mascot/guinea pig when the ex-sailor shows up drunk on Dodd's yacht (borrowed, it later turns out), which is sailing him and his disciples in "the Cause" from San Francisco to New York. Dodd uses the voyage to do some "processing" on Freddie--and if that sounds like Scientology's notorious "auditing," so it is. Says Dodd to Freddie, "You've wandered from the proper path." He asks all manner of personal questions, revealing that Freddie's father was a drunk, his mother insane, and that he abandoned his Massachusetts sweetheart before the war and never went back for her. Is that why Freddie is so drunk and miserable, or is he just a miserable drunk? Regardless, though he hasn't got money to pay Dodd/L. Ron Hubbard for his processing and future cure (to be "perfect" instead of "clear"), Freddie can offer his services as aide, photographer, and occasional enforcer.

This long processing scene on ship, and Freddie's postwar wanderings, give Phoenix an amazing demonstration of acting muscle--certainly the most anguished and physical performance so far this year. Shoulders thrust forward, brow contorted, elbows akimbo, he wears his face in knots. His Freddie is a profoundly uncomfortable man, unhappy in his own skin, sometimes writhing as if to peel off that skin like a wetsuit. It's exhausting to watch, and the movie is 137 minutes long. You wonder if Freddie will ever find peace, or pierce the bubble that Dodd has built around them, but those questions don't concern Anderson. He isn't drilling for oil in this picture.

The Master is set in the early 1950s, with great fidelity to postwar dress, manners, and décor. If Freddie is the Brando-ish angry young man, Dodd is more the courtly con artist who loves a lavish meal, surrounded by family (including wife Amy Adams) and acolytes; and then he leaves the table to let someone else pick up the bill. (Look for Laura Dern as one of his wealthy, silly, but not entirely credulous benefactors.) Freddie is a man of simpler tastes. When, briefly employed at a department store, he takes a model out to dinner, he passes out drunk in what looks to be the booth of a Chinese restaurant, his date pecking sadly at her food. The image only lasts a few seconds, but it put me in mind of Edward Hopper.

Once you pass north of Dahlia Lounge, Fourth Avenue doesn't offer many dining options, and nothing Chinese. The closest match near the Cinerama is Bell Thai, which is a little too clean and new to qualify as Hopperesque. Still, on a late weeknight, the place was entirely deserted but for a few takeout customers. You could sit at any one of the widow seats facing the avenue and grab a quick bite after the show. Freddie would never eat there, since there's no bar. Dodd would never eat there, because it's not fancy enough (or because he battled the Thais in one of his many former lives). But after such a long movie, I was in the mood for something swift and spicy. Served with white rice, the chicken and cashew nuts came with veggies that weren't overcooked. The poultry tasted fresh and wasn't too chewy. The sauce didn't overwhelm the dish, and the tab with tea didn't exceed $14--maybe not a bargain in 1950, but good for today.

About an hour into The Master, you begin to realize that Dodd will not be debunked or toppled like The Wizard of Oz or Elmer Gantry. Anderson doesn't care if he's a charlatan or scoundrel. His vices are hinted at (booze, money, women), but they're not his undoing. It's a lost opportunity for the movie and for Hoffman, whose funniest scenes are in depicting Dodd's prickly vanity and outsize ego. He's a prophet who, in order to reveal the sequel to his first book (no, not called Dianetics), marches out into the Arizona desert dressed like a Hawaiian cowboy, impatient Freddie in tow, to dig up a strongbox containing the manuscript. It's all a hoax, but it's a comically fastidious hoax. You want the movie to be about him, not mumbling, miserable Freddie. Lies are always more interesting than sincerity. But Anderson is nothing if not sincere.

And why, to us and Anderson, should Freddie matter? What makes him so special? He's just a mass of inchoate postwar yearning. He's full of id and the "animal" impulses that Dodd deplores. (Again, Dodd is a colossal hypocrite, which is why we like him.) "We're tied together," Dodd tells Freddie. Why? Anderson never makes that clear. If the master intends to remake his protégée into some kind of modern ideal, Freddie is too stubbornly resistant and unreliable--qualities that Anderson evidently admires. (In some respects, Freddie resembles Adam Sandler's character in Punch Drunk Love, a primitive in need of love.) Having set up that opposition, the push/pull between Dodd and Freddie, The Master can't move beyond their stalemate. The "process" gets repeated, tediously, in what begins to feel like one long acting exercise for Phoenix--the Method turned to madness.

Dodd, clearly, wants to be worshipped. But does Freddie need to worship some god or idol? Do we? Anderson is grappling with the idea, common in the postwar era, that Auschwitz and the A-Bomb and the whole horror of WWII had put an end to the old gods. Scientology, like the cults of Ayn Rand and Sigmund Freud, was only one of dozens of quack belief systems that arose after the war. During that war, millions died because they were misled by their masters. And if Freddie ultimately refuses to follow another one, maybe that's a small victory. Still, though made with enormous craft and conviction, The Master is ultimately less satisfying than my chicken and cashews.

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