(The Master (2012); Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson; Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams; Rated R for obscenity)
It probably means that I’ve been in Hollywood too long, that I think I was more offended by this movie’s profound and sustained boringness as opposed to its pervasive and gratuitous obscenity. Don’t get me wrong. The obscenity is of the most sexist and gratuitous kind, which itself makes the movie, uh, eschewable. But The Master is so colossally boring that I found myself brooding more during the various exploitive scenes on how bad a director you have to be to wallow in all kinds of nudity and crass sexuality but still produce a movie completely devoid of a pulse. It’s possibly the dullest movie I have ever seen. And I spent six weeks in film school watching Soviet era propaganda films, so that is saying a lot.
I need to qualify this review by saying that my husband and I walked out at the hour and a half point. We were barely thirty minutes into the film when in a moment of mutual groaning – it was after Phoenix masturbated into the ocean, but before he fondled the naked nipple of the soon discarded department store girl – my husband leaned over and said, “Any time you want to go…” Once it was on the table, I thought about leaving probably every five minutes until the scene in which Amy Adams was reading the uber-crass pornography to Joaquin Phoenix – complete with the c-word – finally drove me up and out. So, what follows here is technically a review of the first hour and a half of The Master. Maybe the movie got stunningly brilliant in the last hour. I’d still feel like I got vomited on – yet again! – by Paul Thomas Anderson and scammed by this over-hyped bit of trash.
This movie is not really worth a long review, and frankly, I don’t want to force myself back over the hour and a half of tortured ennui and violation just to basically say, “BLECHHHHHHKKKKKKK!” Suffice it to say, that The Master is the most egregious example yet of Paul Thomas Anderson’s pathological inability to craft a coherent cinematic story. His movies are generally a mess of self-indulgent scenes with long self-conscious moments. This one takes the excess to a whole new level. He had an idea to make a movie about L. Ron Hubbard. But an idea does not a movie make, and throwing in a lot of crass sexuality to hide the lack of a story is a time-tested recipe for disaster.
For the record, the reason the movie is so damn boring, is that it has no interest in serving the audience by providing anything that people need to connect to and care about a story. Initially, I thought that the movie had made a very fundamental error in not taking the time to make the protagonist relatable to the audience. But before long I realized that there is no protagonist in this film and no one with whom the audience is meant to relate so as to take on their transformational journey. We’re not supposed to travel the story with any of the characters. We are meant to muse over how brilliant Paul Thomas Anderson must be because he must have some sense of what he’s doing here, right? I think, wrong. Anderson is someone who has fallen into the dangerous pit of believing his own hype.
How to account for all the critical raving about the project? Well, you do have excellent actors here and while the movie uses them in Anderson’s trademark, way over the top not an ounce of nuance or subtlety, it’s still cool to watch Phoenix with his speech defect and Amy Adams with her unblinking obsession. It will probably get Oscar noms because actors, who are the main voting block in the Academy, love to laud other actors for over the top screaming and flailing about and doing uber-vulgar things on screen. They call it “brave.”
On another level, Anderson’s fatuous dabbling in things that are too smart for him absolutely lends itself to critics projecting on the film basically anything they want. It’s the dubious benefit of making a mess that it can then be claimed to mean anything to anyone. In the old days, they would have just written it off as a loss of creative control. But honestly, I think a lot of the critical praise is for the perversion itself. The depiction of masturbation, for example, is still somewhat of a taboo in moviemaking, but here it happens twice. A lot of critics think it makes them appear avant garde to act as though this kind of shameless behavior is all just more fodder for artistic expression.
As one last warning, it needs to be said that the depiction of sexuality in The Master is offensively sexist. It’s not brilliant, it’s abusive. The movie opens with the image of a woman in sand being, well, I’m too much of a lady to say what the movie shows being down to the image. It goes beyond just sex. Then, there is the use of the c-word, which really needs to become the new “N-word” in social discourse. There is a protracted scene in which nude women of all ages are paraded around dancing in front of men who are wearing their clothes. In short, I have rarely seen a film in which women are so completely objectified by the director, with no real justification. You could take all the sex out of the movie and the story – such as it is – would not be altered substantively. The sex is just there because, well, who know? Maybe Anderson is some kind of kinky pervert who likes to have nude actresses in his power.
Probably the best thing to be said about The Master is that, for a Paul Thomas Anderson film, it doesn’t unfairly vilify Christianity. So, you know, that’s good.
Pass. Royal pass.
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