CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS AND NO SCIENTOLOGY. ABSOLUTELY NOT, NO WAY, IT'S NOT ABOUT SCIENTOLOGY, OKAY? (AND IT'S NOT ABOUT DOCTOR WHO EITHER.)
The year's biggest disappointment was not, as expected, Prometheus, though that's probably because I didn't subject myself to all the hype and trailers and then realise the film had little left to discover. Nor was it The Dark Knight Rises since my expectations were only moderate after the previous movie (and again, I hadn't watched the trailers on YouTube over and over). Nor was it either of the year's Adam Sandler offerings since  I don't expect anything from them and  I didn't bother to see them. No: the year's greatest failure to satisfy my hopes for Quality Cinema was the new film from Paul Thomas Anderson. I liked There Will Be Blood a great deal, and I absolutely love Boogie Nights, but this is absolutely not even close to being in the same league. (Confession: I have not seen Magnolia yet.)
In the years immediately after the Second World War, The Master is Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), leader of a small philosophical movement known as The Cause, which promotes regression, past lives and hypnosis as part of its great Vision For Humanity. Drawn into Dodd's orbit is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, who I have to admit I didn't recognise at first), a naval veteran drifting aimlessly from one meaningless job and sexual encounter to another. Stowing away on a yacht, he finds himself invited to stay with Dodd's extended family and social circle, thanks partly to his facility with making powerful hooch cocktails out of whatever's to hand (including paint thinner).
In essence, The Master is really about the relationship between the two men. It's clearer what Quell sees in Dodd: he needs to belong in an organised structure and cannot function on his own, so he willingly subjects himself to Dodd's "Processing": endless question and answer sessions that are impossible to tell whether they're brilliantly clever or made-up nonsense. Somehow he at least doesn't fail these tests, even though (despite his military experience) he lacks the discipline to fit in, to behave himself, and he even physically attacks those who question The Cause. But it's not as clear what Dodd sees in Quell: it's never explained why he insists this unpredictable and violent alcoholic is so important to The Cause. Does he relish the challenge of converting him?
It's similarly difficult to work out what the ultimate point of the story is, since neither of the two is really worthy of interest. Dodd's Cause might be a flash of insight into the human condition, it might be hogwash that nevertheless attracts a circle of acolytes looking for some kind of meaning to their lives. (Any resemblance to Scientology is entirely coincidental and in your own head and not the film.) Certainly there's no hint that Dodd is an out-and-out charlatan, and I'm slightly tempted by the idea that Dodd isn't The Master at all: it's his wife (Amy Adams).
Odd moments appeal - a full-on discussion about The Cause at a swanky party where Dodd is demonstrating regression in particular, since that gave a hint as to what these people were talking about - while others, principally the guaranteed least erotic group nude sequence ever put on film, stun in entirely the wrong way. But for all the undeniably intriguing substance and exemplary performances, I can't get excited about the film and it does become a series of arguments about something unclear between two men we don't really care about. It's a cold film, hard to get into and hard to find very much meat, and the heavyweight dramatic fireworks never go off. The period detail is certainly as convincing as the evocation of the 1970s in Boogie Nights - but it isn't a fraction as enjoyable or exciting. It's a much more sombre film, heavier and glummer. I wanted to like it, honestly: I wanted to be dazzled, and in the end I just wasn't.