Anderson, Hoffman shine in ‘The Master’

Lee McClelland

Writer, producer and director Paul Thomas Anderson is known for his odd choice of subjects and settings in his films.

Anderson’s early work comes to mind: “Boogie Nights” (1997), a film that follows one California man’s journey in the business of pornography during the ’70s and ’80s where Anderson is capable of making those in the business of adultery relatable, people with whom the viewer can identify with.

“Punch Drunk Love” (2002) starring Adam Sandler does much the same thing. Anderson creates Sandler’s character — a rare opportunity for Sandler to act in a serious role — as a passive, submissive man who lets other walk all over him.

The plot of “Punch Drunk Love” has Sandler ordering massive amounts of pudding in order to rack up frequent flyer miles while he deals with a developing anger problem: an odd plot indeed.

But Anderson captures the human condition so well in these obscure characters. In his newest film “The Master” (2012), Anderson employs a star cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams.

The movie follows Freddie Quell (Phoenix) as he transitions from the Navy to civilian life at the end of World War II. After proving a deadbeat drunk, Quell drunkenly stumbles into Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), an accomplished man who is the leader of an organization called “The Cause.” Dodd finds Quell to be fascinating and offers Freddie work in order to spend more time with him.

If Anderson was posing a thesis to his audience in “The Master,” surely it would be whether or not a human being can live without being under another’s submission.

Throughout the film, the dynamic relationship between Phoenix and Hoffman propels the plot further. Other critics and writers have offered speculation that Lancaster Dodd is a fictionalization of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology.

There are interesting correlations between the two organizations (the timeline does match up quite nicely) but this fact takes away from the artistic message Anderson so adequately conveys to the audience.

With a doubt, Hoffman’s performance is unrivaled by his colleagues in “The Master,” which is what earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor in this film.

Hoffman’s acting range is quite impressive: his role as Willy Loman in the latest run of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” has been regarded as the best run of Miller’s famous play.

Hoffman’s ability to switch from a calm, articulate intellectual to an irate fanatic oozing with profanity at the drop of a hat is remarkable. And Anderson knows this, which is why he often casts Hoffman in his films.

While Joaquin Phoenix adequately portrays Freddie Quell, it seems like an extension of his role in “Walk the Line” (2005) but with added sexuality, explicit behavior and drunkeness. Quell is a typical oddball Anderson character, but Phoenix does not bring him full circle. At the conclusion of the film, I was left wondering whether or not Anderson made the right choice in casting.

Amy Adams’s role as Peggy Dodd, Lancaster’s wife, is superb, though she is not frequently featured in the film. Adams’s softness and understanding character compliments Hoffman’s, who is unstable and unsure of himself.

The real drawback of “The Master” is Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, which has taken quite a hit since his role as Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line.” Though Anderson is known for teasing genius performances out of acting legends such as John C. Reily in “Hard Eight” (1996), “Boogie Nights” (1997) and “Magnolia” (1999), and one of Anderson’s favorites, Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Hard Eight,” “Magnolia” and “The Master,” the famed director cannot evoke the feeling and emotion from a carbon-copied Johnny Cashesque performance by Joaquin Pheonix, who only adds a heightened sexual explicitness and crudeness to Anderson’s character Freddie Quell.

Pheonix was a terrific actor in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but something happened which affected his genius. Perhaps it was the terribly-forged biopic “I’m Still Here” (2010) where Pheonix documented his transition from acting to rapping that possibly setback Pheonix’s confidence as an actor.

It is unfortunate that a miracle worker such as Paul Thomas Anderson couldn’t lift the veritable wreckage of Joaquin Pheonix from his own ashes in “The Master.”

Anderson’s overall creation is beautiful. Wonderful, serene settings are balanced by seemingly obscure, oddball characters who are trying to fit into society in this mid-nineteenth century world.

Any movie fanatic ought to see “The Master,” and anyone looking for a good movie need look no further. “The Master” is another Andersonian jewel which shines all on its own.