Is Joaquin Phoenix crazy? Since I don't plan to dine with him here in Toronto, I think that question is beside the point. At the premiere of Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" last night at the Princess of Wales Theater on King Street, Phoenix received adulation for a performance that was already getting buzz out of Telluride. Clean-shaven, formally dressed, eager to please, he held his right arm protectively around the waist of a young bottle-blond identified only as "Heather."' Nearby, The Weinstein Company's Harvey Weinstein held court with the expansion of personality that comes from having the gut feeling that "The Master" will be part of the awards conversation and is also "high art" in a Hollywood sense.
As for Phoenix, despite the fact that the screening was an hour late and it would be polite to say that the audience was testy, he was a man behaving Sunday-school best, bad boy issues shelved and beard shaved. He's playing the off-screen role of penitent Oscar-nominee and Oscar-seeker — not crazy man on a vendetta to slay his own career. The screening began and Phoenix sat with Heather in the orchestra seats alongside co-star Amy Adams. If the screening of a 70mm print of "The Master" had begun on time, there's no saying how much star power would have ascended to the stage before or after. However, the lateness of the night (delayed by the appearance of Canadian mega-star Ryan Gosling at the earlier premiere of "The Place Beyond the Pines" and adoring throngs) meant that director Anderson was very, very brief in his opening remarks and the stars never took the stage.
Still, having seen "The Master," I can say conclusively that Phoenix Is bat-guano insane as Freddie Quell, the boozy WWII sailor who comes under the sway of charismatic cult leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his wife Peggy (Adams). Quell is a lost soul, ok, we get it, on the seas of life, both looking for a captain, and in mutiny against him once he finds him in Dodd. And, from what I can gather of my own limited knowledge of Scientology (next time I bump into Tom Cruise or John Travolta, I'll download that info), Dodd is a fictionalized stand-in for the organization's flawed founder L. Ron Hubbard, author of the kooky Dianetics, which was published in 1950 (a fact echoed in "The Master").
[Slideshow: 2012 Toronto International Film Festival Portraits]
As Dodd's alcoholic acolyte, Phoenix delivers an intense and intensely physical performance. He carries his starved-for-the-role scrawny body in a tensed, round-shouldered Popeye the Sailorman posture. His lips keen to the side of his face in a rictus-smirk. Quell drinks homemade hooch laced with paint thinner, humps a busty sand sculpture on the beach early on in the movie and confesses to incest with his Aunt Bertha (he was drunk and she was hot). How's that for crazy? So, yes, Freddie is so crazy he makes his Oscar-winning role as Johnny Cash look as tame as Ryan Seacrest.
Hoffman carries slightly less plot baggage than Phoenix in a showy Barnum of a role that plays to his strengths. Alongside Phoenix, Hoffman, who can blow up on screen, seems restrained. They have multiple strong scenes together, which will make for a challenge this awards season as to who will get nominated in lead and support. (I suppose Phoenix lead; Hoffman support.) Particularly riveting is a jail sequence. The cops have arrested Dodd for fiscal malfeasance and Quell for resisting his mentor's arrest by viciously attacking the arresting officers and tossed the pair in adjacent cells. Phoenix is kinetic, throwing his body around the tiny cell, kicking the porcelain toilet to coffee cup shards. Meanwhile, Hoffman calmly holds it together, as if this was just another learning experience and teaching tool, a reaction that only incites Quell to more furious wall-kicking. He even takes a bite of the mattress in outrage (literally chewing up the scenery). It's very bromantic in an incredibly warped way.
Adams, as Dodd's wife Peggy, gives the most arresting performance of the three because a little of this intensity goes a long way. The actress is tougher than she has been in the past, even tougher than her Oscar-nominated character in "The Fighter." She is Lady Macbeth in a fifties maternity smock. Where we get too much Phoenix and more than enough Hoffman, we want more of Adams, and more understanding of how Peggy came to be the ballast in Dodd's life.
In the end, "The Master" rises or falls by Phoenix and his character. And, yet, as someone who really loves Phoenix on screen, and rooted for him to win the Oscar for Cash, I felt left out of the party. I could see the pain behind the actor's eyes but it didn't translate. I did not feel it myself. For me, and I know this is not the case for all the viewers, I felt pushed away by all the ticks and tortured looks, repeated in a way that made increasingly less sense
That, I think is my core problem with Anderson's latest film, and his films in general since "Boogie Nights." In "The Master," it seems like he's rubbing sticks together and there are repeated sparks but no blaze. I applaud his ambition and kept trying to throw myself on the current of the story but, in the end, I felt adrift. I think this is a general feeling that I have for Anderson. I loved Daniel Day Lewis in "There Will Be Blood," and I still didn't want to drink that milkshake. Anderson keeps stepping out and asking "aren't I clever." Clever, yes. But to what end? I felt the same way about his "Magnolia." Great performances but remember the falling frogs at the end? Gimmicks. Distractions. Self-congratulations.
"The Master" is not the masterpiece I had hoped for but, still, it got under my skin and gnawed away long after the lights went up at the Princess of Wales Theater.
Watch the trailer for 'The Master':