As someone that spouted the praises of There Will Be Blood, I was all too excited to see Paul Thomas Anderson’s next (should be) great film, The Master. Especially since the trailer had it looking like a million bucks was taking a horseshoe out for a romantic night, just the two of ‘em. But, as is the case with most things that look good in small samples (Modest Mouse, anyone?), the trailer neglected to hint at the nine and half hours of mundane idiosyncrasies that made you sympathize with its main character because you too wanted to pound your head repeatedly against a wall in hopes of feeling something, anything besides your own mind atrophying.
Except you had a reason to.
The Master is the brainchild of noted writer, director, and (I assume) wearer of scarves, Paul Thomas Anderson. Given his past successes for such incredible, iconic, ensemble dramas as Boogie Nights and Magnolia, not to mention Daniel Day-Lewis’s tour-de-force performance in the aforementioned There Will Be Blood, The Master should’ve been the love child of Barry White and Aurora Borealis. Instead it was like watching a blind dog try and find a scrap of food that rolled under the couch—you want so badly for it to succeed, but after a while all you feel is pity that eventually transforms into resentment and frustration at the needless sound of muffled grunts and carpets desperately being clawed.
(By the way, a Google search of “Paul Thomas Anderson Scarf” yielded no results. I stand corrected.)
Surprisingly though, this isn’t to say the movie lacked in terms of performance. On the contrary, the trifecta of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams were superb and unbelievably convincing throughout the entirety of the film. They each breathed a sense of life and drama into their respective characters that made them undeniable even as you pained to keep your eyes on the screen. Their performances were lost, however, in the muddy bath that was the story and subsequent editing. A great idea and compelling characters were messed up with what seemed like an inability to narrow the focus and highlight the great. Like putting all of your kid’s paintings on the fridge.
When my girlfriend and I walked out of the theater, we decided to let the movie gestate before we threw on our triangular professor hats and pontificated about its greatness. (We were both wearing hoodies instead, as is the appropriate attire for Portland film critics.) I had a sense of anxiety though as we walked from the theater to our Thai restaurant destination because I was thoroughly unimpressed with the movie because I was certain that if I didn’t like it, she would praise it for nuances that I wasn’t paying attention to. (And I’m an attentive guy, for the record.) It was going to be like walking out of Inception all over again… Still though, even with each of us clearly having thoughts, we waited until after we ordered our meals to divulge our rankings. In the moment of truth, and on the count of three, we threw out our rankings of the movie overall on a scale from one to ten. (Ten being similar to a serendipitous double-rainbow being gallivanted on by twelve lucky unicorns. While a one simulated an experience akin to the rape of a butterfly’s eardrum.) Simultaneously we blurted out answers of “6” and “6.5.” Not bad, for us. Bad for the movie though. Yet we did each agree that both Hoffman and Phoenix should be considered for Oscars and neither of us would be surprised if one or both of them won.
After letting both the food and the conversation settle, she then made a great point I had, up until then, neglected to ever think about: when a director also happens to have written a piece that feels too bloated, most likely it’s because they were too close with the original material and couldn’t see that their vision wasn’t translating. That person isn’t going to be as keen on cutting out the fat in the interest of saving the story. Anderson’s past greatness got in the way.
As our plates shrunk in quantity, we continued to dissect the goods and bads of the film. However, we quickly agreed that we had covered all the good and decided to emphasize the bad. It was like going to the park to celebrate a beautiful day by people-watching but only focusing on the train wrecks that insecurely putter around in their Crocs and bucket hats.
How could a man (Anderson) previously so good at telling such intricate stories scream into the wind with such rich material? How were there SO many plot holes left undone in a two-hour movie? Was the movie meant to be more metaphor or social commentary? And what exactly do sixty-year old boobs look like? (Oh, wait, he covered that one.) We shared opinions as willingly as turns on each other’s plates. Both of which bringing about, “mmm, that’s good,” reactions. With each bite and observation, we discovered depth and meaning, error and shortfalls. Eventually we had compacted the film to the point where its rankings fell every subsequent time we thought about it. I think it settled on about a “3.5.” Thank god for the performances. We casually sat outside and continued to mingle conversation of those who couldn’t parallel park with observation of how significant plot points weren’t properly executed, or forgotten altogether.
Anderson, still an auteur to be reckoned with, should simply chalk this up to him being unable to execute his vision completely. He created spectacular characters, but seemed to assume that their entire backstories would translate. He’s close, yes, but there’s a wide-margin between being close and being a master.