I really shouldn't be surprised.
Director-screenwriter Paul Thomas Anderson's latest movie “The Master” is drawing wildly disparate reactions from audiences since it opened here nearly three weeks ago. The period piece, set in the late 1940s and early 1950s, focuses on the relationship between two very different men with certain traits in common.
One, said to be based on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, is the sexually obsessed, booze-loving head of a cultish religion.
The other, a shell-shocked WWII veteran, is a mentally off, sexually obsessed, alcoholic loose cannon. The veteran becomes the protégé of the charismatic charlatan — but doesn't entirely buy into his religion.
Neither man takes kindly to criticism. Both seem self-involved and willful. They need each other for different psychologically complex reasons.
Academy Award winner Philip Seymour Hoffman and Academy Award nominee Joaquin Phoenix give phenomenal performances as leader and follower, respectively. Hoffman's performance is layered underplaying, all polished veneer. Phoenix is simply off-the-hook unstable in a squirm-inducing characterization that is getting major best-actor Oscar buzz.
Whatever people feel about this movie, they seem to feel unusually strongly.
“If you think seeing ‘The Master' is a good idea ... think again. I saw it yesterday, and it was two hours of my life I will never get back,” a friend posted on Facebook. “It is very well-acted, but the story leaves a LOT to be desired.”
He got nine quick responses. One person who had seen it called it “a very strange movie indeed.” Another described it as “disturbingly complex ... not one of my faves, but good for discussion.”
“I actually enjoyed it,” yet another shared. “The only thing I hated were the people around us” who were a distraction, he said.
Local playwright Max Sparber (“Minstrel Show,” “Cruelties”) told me he was sure there was something there, but he didn't want to see it again to figure out what.
Rachel Jacobson, director of Omaha's arthouse nonprofit theater Film Streams, has called it her favorite movie of the year so far. Jacobson revels in the art of filmmaking, and this is a sophisticated movie that excels in that art in nearly every way: cinematography, acting, music, editing, art direction.
“Altogether amazing,” raved New York Times movie critic A.O. Scott. “... It is a movie about the lure and folly of greatness that comes as close as anything I've seen recently to being a great movie. There will be skeptics, but the cult is already forming. Count me in.”
Oh. The lure and folly of greatness. Yeah, I can see that. It wasn't the first thing that leapt to mind when the movie ended, but okay.
I caught an early screening of “The Master” at Film Streams, along with a handful of others. Among them was Bill Blizek, founding editor of the University of Nebraska at Omaha's Journal of Religion and Film. Within an hour of the screening, he emailed me at work.
“Did I miss something, or did ‘The Master' seem to lose its way as the movie progressed?” he asked. “I could see six or eight different directions it could have taken, but in the end (it took) none of those. Let me know what you think.”
I stifled my first tongue-in-cheek reaction to Bill's message, which I received while writing a review of the movie. I wanted to say: “Gee, Bill, I was hoping you would tell me what to think.”
Instead, off the cuff, I said this: “Think what that movie might have been if it had combined the volatile co-dependency thing with real commentary about the nature of cult. But it never really dug into that, did it? Much to admire. But potential not realized, too.”
I gave it three out of four stars, saying in the review that it was a superior display of the craft of filmmaking but would likely fall short of satisfying many viewers as far as its storytelling was concerned. I also thought it went on too long (137 minutes), earmarking a couple scenes I found added little to the story.
I wanted it to be about more than the strange relationship between these two men.
My editor, who went with her husband, admired it. Three stars, she agreed. Her pet theory is that both characters are controlled by women as their masters, just in different ways.
And our executive editor, who casually mentioned in passing that he'd loved it, said the relationship between the two men was fascinating enough to sustain the film — so intriguing, in fact, that he wanted to see it again.
Well, I really shouldn't be surprised by these strong, diverse reactions. They are the track record of Paul Thomas Anderson, often hailed as a modern master whose films are steeped in alienation, loneliness and family dysfunction.
People screamed bloody murder over Anderson's “There Will Be Blood,” a best-picture nominee in 2008 about a turn-of-the-century oil driller. It earned Daniel Day-Lewis a best-actor Oscar.
They either loved, or hated, “Punch-Drunk Love,” Anderson's 2002 dramedy starring Adam Sandler as a psychologically troubled novelty salesman dominated by women.
They raved, or howled, about “Magnolia,” Anderson's 1999 movie with multiple plotlines in which it famously, inexplicably rained frogs at one point. Three Oscar nods included Tom Cruise for supporting actor.
And “Boogie Nights,” with Mark Wahlberg and Julianne Moore enmeshed in the porn industry, was equally divisive— and a triple Oscar nominee in 1998.
Anderson, it seems, is high art. That doesn't always mesh with being “The Master” of broad, populist tastes.