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‘The Master’ Review: Scientology or Not, Emotionally It’s Just Running on Cruise Control

Watching “The Master,” I found myself impressed with the craftsmanship but strangely disengaged

It’s ambitiously hitting (selected) screens in 70 millimeter and dealing with huge topics like war and religion, but for all its exquisite craftsmanship, Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” lacks the narrative sweep that made “There Will Be Blood” such a work of genius.

This latest one definitely merits a look, but two viewings later, I still find myself both impressed and strangely disengaged.

While most of the advance buzz has centered around how much the film’s title character does or doesn’t resemble Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, “The Master” winds up being more interested in exploring the surrogate father-son dynamic that Anderson previously plumbed in both “Blood” and “Boogie Nights.”

This time, however, the son is so damaged and the father so unable to provide assistance that the story never quite gels — it’s like an experiment with two variables.

Freddy (Joaquin Phoenix) is a sailor in World War II with a taste for alcohol: not so much the kind they serve in bars as the stuff that’s used in machinery. He spends some time after the war in a psych ward with other PTSD victims, although it’s clear that his problems began way before the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Fired from his job as a department-store photographer (while hung over, he picks a fight with a customer) and then fleeing from a menial gig on a farm in Salinas (a fellow cabbage-picker is poisoned by Freddy’s powerful hooch), Freddy has pretty much hit bottom when he stows away on a party boat in San Francisco.

Running things aboard ship is the charismatic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a self-described doctor, philosopher and nuclear physicist who also leads a self-actualization sect known as The Cause. Seeing what terrible shape Freddy is in (not to mention enamored of the potent stuff in Freddy’s flask), Dodd takes him on, with Freddy quickly becoming part of the doctor’s inner circle.

On the Anderson spectrum, Dodd is somewhere between the shameless con artist played by Daniel Day-Lewis in “Blood” and Burt Reynolds’ deluded true believer in “Boogie Nights”; this huckster clearly believes in the metaphysical hokum he’s dispensing, but ask too many skeptical questions and his buried rage emerges.

The movie suggests that Dodd and Freddy, as a buddy team, could get along just fine, but with Dodd’s star rising (guided by his driven wife, played memorably by Amy Adams) and Freddy’s never-ceasing love of super-strong spirits, this platonic love story may not work out after all.

Ultimately, however, both characters are so very extreme that you find yourself wishing for a movie about one or the other. Dodd is ultimately a secondary character here — imagine “My Week with L. Ron” — and while Freddy’s story is a compelling one, the movie is pulled in too many directions by these two unbalanced protagonists.

Still, for all its flaws, “The Master” deserves to be seen, particularly on the big screen. Studio moguls have leaned toward 3D as a way to get people to go to the movies rather than wait for video, but Anderson’s use of 70mm (aided greatly by cinematographer Mihai Malaimare, Jr.) reminds us of the impact that the big screen can have.

From the chiaroscuro shadows to the glow of late afternoon to a sun-baked desert plain to the intense close-ups of Phoenix’s and Hoffman’s physiognomies, this movie often feels like an elegy to film itself, which is so rapidly being replaced by digital technology.

Also making those close-ups work are the actors, whose disparate styles create an odd chemistry much like their characters do. Phoenix is all internal, skirting around Method parody with his twitches and mumbles but ultimately drawing us into Freddy’s shattered soul, while Hoffman’s boisterous extroversion captures that salesman-like quality necessary for the founder of a new religion.

With period pieces, it often takes a while to judge how well they capture another era (any number of movies can be accused of having, for example, a very 1970s-looking ’30s) but for now, almost every shot in “The Master” looks like it could have come right out of Life magazine. The lighting of Freddy’s department-store photography — again, the power of shooting on film — makes his subjects look eerily of their time.

And then there’s Jonny Greenwood’s unsettling and evocative score, which launches with Bernard Herrmann-esque string flourishes and metronomic percussion before settling into a haunting undercurrent that weaves its way through the movie. It’s further proof that if anything happens to his day gig with Radiohead, this guy has a future as one of this generation’s finest film composers.

For all its ambitions, unfortunately, “The Master” lacks the resonance of emotional connection that marks Anderson at his best (even in movies that aren’t). I admire it greatly at a safe distance, but at the same time, I never felt invited to get close enough to love it.