First Hit: Really great acting doesn’t lead to an interesting story or film.
Two extremely powerful performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix and one very strong performance by Amy Adams were presented but it didn’t tell much of a story.
This film seems to be conflicted between telling a story about Freddie Quell (Phoenix) and Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman). The film starts interestingly enough following Freddie as he leaves the Navy a confused and probably psychotic man. He drinks all the time and creates alcohol based liquid concoctions which Dodd tells him are amazing.
The first hour or so we travel with Freddie as he gets and loses jobs and women. His one respite from a damaged lifestyle is that he is smitten by Doris a very young girl from which he restrains himself. When he stows away on a boat Dodd is using to go to New York, through the canal, he is discovered and taken on as a pupil by Dodd.
“Processing” is the go word to the cultish religion Dodd is leading with his wife Peggy (Adams). When Dodd enters the film, the film fights with itself about what story to tell, the one about Quell finding his way through life or Dodd the founder of a Scientology like faith.
This battle, the great acting, or a cohesive story, has this film falling far short of what it could have been.
Phoenix is absolutely amazing beyond belief. His Quell is someone very difficult to understand or have empathy for, yet compelling to watch. One needs to have a seat belt on when watching the roller coaster Phoenix takes us on. Hoffman, on the other hand is stoic, grandstanding, and regal in a commanding performance as the head of this new found faith. He demands and gets the attention of everyone in the film and sitting in the audience. The moments where he breaks his regal stance, like when he barks at a follower (Laura Dern) who questions his change in path in the second book, is powerful at seeing his vulnerability. Adams is excellent as Dodd’s wife and fellow creator of this new faith. Dern is fantastic as a devoted follower. Paul Thomas Anderson wrote a script for great acting but not a very good story. But, as director, got amazing performances from his cast and the feel of the fifties, was extraordinary.
Overall: This could have been a great film, but we are left with great performances.