The Balzac cinema and Joaquin Phoenix in The Master

Le Balzac

What better way to escape the gloom of January than to go to the movies?

I went to the Balzac to see The Master starring Joaquin Phoenix. To be honest, as the film hobbled along (despite a magnificent opening), I derived more pleasure from sitting in my plush seat in the comfort of the gorgeous auditorium than from actually watching the movie. What prompted me to see the movie in the first place? (i) Arbitrage (my first choice) starring Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon was no longer playing at the Publicis cinema across the road; (ii) I loved Paul Thomas Anderson’s last movie, There Will Be Blood starring the sublime Daniel Day-Lewis, so figured The Master would be equally good; and (iii) I was blown away by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance as Truman Capote in Bennett Miller’s Capote. (If you haven’t seen Capote, I urge you to rent or buy the DVD.  You won’t be disappointed.)

The Master opened well with strong visuals and the promise of a good story. As we settled deeper into our velvet seats in anticipation of being transported into the protagonist’s world of postwar America, something happened. What we were expecting to happen – an event that would change the lead character in some way – didn’t. (Phoenix’s character plays an alcoholic marginal recently discharged from the U.S. Navy.) He encounters an enigmatic stranger, played by Hoffman, on a boat – with whom he bonds. Why they bond is unclear, but they do. As I said, this is the defining event that’s supposed to propel the protagonist into the second act and take us all somewhere. But where?? 

For the rest of the film it isn’t clear at all where we’re going. Once we finally get off the claustrophobic boat, we go to Philadelphia only to get stuck in a big house to watch Phoenix’s character walk back and forth, back and forth, eyes closed, across a room. Then onwards to Arizona, but that’s equally boring. I’d like to know, for example, what the motorcycle scene in the desert was all about. Because I didn’t see the point in watching two guys hurtling across an expanse of desert on a motorcycle. Too much time was spent on seemingly purposeless activities.

My mind began to wander. I thought about the giant January sales I could be partaking in in the stores along the Champs Elysees. I also wondered if the Nespresso boutique still had those delicious hazelnut capsules in stock, a special flavoured coffee sold only at Christmas.

The problem with the storyline, as I see it, is that Joaquin Phoenix’s character is stuck in the same rut all throughout the film.  There’s no growth, no transformation, no revelation other than that Hoffman’s character, the cult leader, seems delusional and possibly homosexual.  Here’s my take in a nutshell – “Drifter meets guru, becomes a disciple, doesn’t understand what the guru’s on about (neither does anyone else), goes to England at behest of guru who’s now living there (why?) and craving Kool cigarettes. Drifter is as lost and directionless at end of film as he was at the beginning.”  End of story.  But hey, I’m no movie critic.

Here’s what Rolling Stone’s movie critic wrote – “Written, directed, acted, shot, edited and scored with a bracing vibrancy that restores your faith in film as an art form. The Master is nirvana for movie lovers.”   Oh, really?

Too bad Arbitrage’s run was over.  I hear it’s a good film. (no, that was a pretty crappy film as well).

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