It has all of Anderson's staples, such as long takes, muscular direction, lyrical montages and a distressing, contrapuntal Jonny Greenwood score. But the end result is like gourmet vanilla pudding: it's nice that it's done professionally, but it's still just vanilla pudding.
Part of the problem is the central metaphor, wherein violent, alcoholic Navy veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) stows away on a voyage led by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a novelist and "movement" leader known for inducing partial hypnosis under the guise of past life regression in his followers.
Lancaster, or "the Master," forges a bond with Freddie, manipulating him into opening up about his greatest fears and regrets, eventually convincing him to mend his animalistic ways by not responding emotionally to negative external stimuli. This leads to montages and an abundance of overacting from Phoenix, who seems to be channelling a modern Nick Nolte.
Because these characters aren't particularly likable or interesting, there's little interest in what happens to them or their cult. Dodd's wife Peggy (Amy Adams) is a little more engaging, if for sheer juxtaposition of prudish virtues with a scene of her jerking off her husband into the bathroom sink while advising him on group management strategies.
Another problem is the didactic itself, which essentially points out the hypocrisy and disturbingly totalitarian rule of a cult. Dodd preaches elevated consciousness and controlled emotional response, but is easily goaded by anyone questioning his guiding ethos. And comparing this all to Scientology is redundant, since there's little shocking or groundbreaking about pointing out the collective delusion that is L. Ron Hubbard's legion of blackmail victims and gullible schmucks.
With emotional and intellectual relevance being virtually non-existent, we're left with the expected technical aptitude of Anderson's vision and some over-the-top, "look at me, Oscar voters" performances from Phoenix and Hoffman. Phoenix smashes a toilet and Hoffman turns red a couple of times.
Oh, and there's a musical number with a room full of fully nude women of varying body shapes and ages, which is something to see in 70MM, especially with all of them adhering to the pubic grooming habits of the time period depicted. (eOne)