Paul Thomas Anderson’s much anticipated THE MASTER was the film of 2012 . . . until it wasn’t. Anderson, here on his 6th film as writer/director, hasn’t been able to wrap things up in a satisfying way since his first, HARD EIGHT, back in ‘96. Now he seems unable to get things going. This one tags along as a great American cult is established, a sort of near-SCIENTOLOGY racket dubbed THE CAUSE, with quasi-religious aspects dictated off-the-cuff by Philip Seymore Hoffman as its mesmerizing self-help guru. Struggling to increase on a small band of family & believers, it initially welcomes Joaquin Phoenix’s drifter, a haunted mystery of a man, damaged goods after his WWII service. But Anderson comes up empty on the only two questions that matter: what do the putative converts see in Hoffman, and likewise, what is it Hoffman sees in Phoenix’s aging wild child? Anderson seems unconcerned, too caught up in his cosmic compositions and empty grandiosity to bother with motivation or believability.* Dramatically, we might as well be cult scoffers. Amy Adams turns in a very good perf as the scarily calm wife of the prophet. But Hoffman is a bust, completely (and completely unexpectedly) uncompelling. Phoenix, looking a good decade too old for his role, is weirdly reminiscent of Montgomery Clift here. Alas, it’s the Clift of RAINTREE COUNTY/’57, possibly his worst perf. (And there’s little question Anderson spotted it, too. Check out the camera angle he used for Phoenix’s big confrontation scene with Hoffman’s son-in-law.) By story’s end, the only thing keeping Phoenix in the storyline is his billing. Have we been following the ‘wrong’ character? Is this why the film dropped out of sight?
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Anderson’s just too talented not to stick with. But he’s repeatedly fallen into the pit of unearned monumentality; aka Michael Cimino-itis. A current, Euro-fed trend has lifted the rep of Cimino’s infamous, career destroying flop, HEAVEN’S GATE/’80. But you don’t need hindsight to see that the Cimino film that needs reassessment isn't GATE, but THE DEER HUNTER/’78 . . . and not up. A thought PTA might profitably chew on.