He might not exactly be Steven Soderbergh when it comes to cranking out movies, but to say that the arrival of un film de Paul Thomas Anderson is eagerly anticipated is a little like asking whether the New York tabloids have something to say about the Jets’ quarterback controversy. But is The Master — Anderson’s first film since 2007’s There Will Be Blood, and only the sixth by the 42-year-old writer-director — going to be a touchdown or a fumble?
The powers that be at the Venice Film Festival took away the prestigious Golden Lion award from the film, supposedly based on Scientology, as the rules state that any given film can only win two awards (The Master was already in the running for best director and actor). But will Anderson, his cast and – most importantly – audiences care that it lost out to the Korean movie Pieta?
You wouldn’t have thought so, but audiences do have a right to do what they’re letting themselves in for. The Master stars Joaquin Phoenix as Naval veteran Freddie Quell, recently returned from World War II and unsure what to do with the rest of his life. Luckily (or perhaps not) for him, Quell is seduced by an organization called The Cause and its charming leader, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). General consensus is that Dodd is based on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, and not just because of his physical appearance but Dodd’s claims of being a writer, scientist and anything else on offer.
Does The Master live up to the hype? Can it? One bookmaker has already installed it as the 4 to 1 favorite to win Best Picture at the Oscars and, according to some critics, the odds are apropos. The Daily Telegraph, not usually prone to hyperbole, hails The Master as “a landmark American movie,” adding, “it makes words like ‘bold’ and ‘extraordinary’ seem utterly inadequate.” Rolling Stone‘s review is equally ebullient. “I believe in the church of Paul Thomas Anderson,” begins Peter Travers. “Fierce and ferociously funny, The Master is a great movie, the best of the year so far, and a new American classic.” And by the time you’re done with Glenn Kenny’s MSN review – “Quite possibly the movie of the year, or the decade” – you may feel as if we should hand over the little gold man right now. Thank goodness there’s room for more than one opinion, and a different one is provided by TIME’s very own Richard Corliss who concedes that The Master is “glorious to watch,” it also “brings no coherence or insight to its two main characters.”