"Jack of All Disguises, Master of None" is a series that attempts to unpack the complexities of the 2002 children's film The Master of Disguise starring Dana Carvey. On Day 6, we pit two Masters against each other.
Last night was a roller coaster ride - I ate an entire package of dried mashed potatoes and beheld two of the finest masters ever committed to film. In lieu of research, the easiest way to go about this was by watching The Master and The Master of Disguise back to back. Because cinema is highly subjective, I will now explain to you why one is better than the other using seven specific criterion.
Let's begin by positing a single question: Why watch The Master (144 min) once when I could watch The Master of Disguise (80 min) twice?
The Master: The main character in The Master is alcoholic WWII veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), who finds himself lured into a religious cult called “The Cause” by charismatic leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) after accidentally poisoning a miner with his moonshine recipe. Quell is taken into the fold as Dodd’s protégé, and becomes one of the religion’s earliest zealots and Dodd’s closest devotee as he continues to struggle with depression, booze and PTSD.
Freddie is sexually compulsive and has anger issues, problems that Dodd takes it upon himself to resolve using “processing,” a system of his creation that attempts to liberate subjects from their past traumas that hearkens back to “auditing” used in scientology. To him, Dodd represents a shot at a loving family (both his parents were negligent and mentally ill), and Freddie represents a chance to prove that his invented system works.
The Master of Disguise: As if it warrants saying, TMoD is helmed by American-Italian Pistachio Disguisey (Dana Carvey), a waiter claiming to be twenty-three who works at his family’s restaurant and has difficulty preventing himself from mimicking the patrons around him. When villain Devlin Bowman kidnaps his father, Pistachio learns that he comes from a long line of masters of disguise and must take on a series of different personalities in order to save his family.
Pistachio is a deeply nuanced character, his subtle accent complimenting his frantic codependency on his family and a desperate desire to be loved and create a family of his own by the lovely and gluten-allergic Jennifer (Jennifer Esposito). He transforms into a master of disguise not only to advance plot but also to comment on society – are we all not just screaming into the void and hiding from ourselves?
Point to: The Master of Disguise
What kind of name is Freddie Quell? Pistachio Disguisey is our everyman, relatable and deeply revealing of the human condition…with jokes!
The Master: Paul Thomas Anderson himself has confirmed that The Master is based loosely on the early days of scientology and its master L. Ron Hubbard, and Anderson’s film takes place in the same era. The fictional “processing” and scientology-based “auditing” are extremely similar examples of psychological manipulation, and repeating motifs of inconsistency between teachings and text and bringing and organization.
Separate from that particular religion, Anderson is making commentary on organized religion as a whole. Through Freddie, we are offered a view of its appeal from a point of redemption, and how it can be as unforgiving as it can be enticing. PTA offers a new, somewhat familiar structure to remove us from any religious affiliations we have, provided that the majority of his audience isn’t scientologists.
The Master of Disguise: Conversely, TMoD pays homage to a number of genres while inventing a mythology all its own, albeit a confusing one. Depending on the character Carvey is embodying, we’re taken through tropes from the spy, ninja, fantasy, romantic comedy and anthropomorphic flavors of cinema are sampled on an eighty minute roller coaster ride.
In the end, TMoD invents a genre all its own that aligns with the fluid nature of identity. In a society plagued with bigotry and children raised not to accept themselves, Carvey and Co. offer a fascinating alternative. If you can't be yourself, Pistachio's philosophy implies, then find a personality that allows you to blend in with your surroundings, erasing personal identity entirely. His discomfort in his own skin speaks to us all, an allegory that splays across all humanity.
Point to: The Master of Disguise. TMoD doesn't need to subscribe to "genre" or "coherent plot" to convey the sweeping message of humanity that it does.
The Master: Chump director Paul Thomas Anderson (who I believe is Wes Anderson’s cousin or brother and is married to one of the funny girls on Saturday Night Live but not one of the Ghostbusters) was given a $32 million budget to produce The Master and, all said and done, raked in $29 million in total for a return.
While The Master received extensive critical praise, there’s no question that the “wild and enormous” scale of PTA’s work won viewers over (credit NYT http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/14/movies/review-the-master-from-paul-thomas-anderson.html)
The Master of Disguise: With a middling budget of $16 million from Happy Madison – compare this to the $50 million budget Mr. Deeds had the same year – The Master of Disguise broke even and then some. The film’s final international gross was over $43 million, eclipsing a Paul Thomas Anderson film released ten years later with no shared qualities save their first two words.
Of course, critics would not appreciate The Master of Disguise at its release, calling it “about as funny a seeping wound” (link AV Club: http://www.avclub.com/articles/the-master-of-disguise,17170/). While this and its one percent Rotten Tomatoes rating would indicate to the average moviegoer that it’s a stinker, keep in mind that hilarious Big Boi movie vehicle Who’s Your Caddy? was also not appreciated in its time.
Point to: The Master of Disguise. For what it lacks in Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master of Disguise makes up for in James Brolin and piles of money.
The Master: Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead composed the soundtrack to The Master in addition to a number of tunes that were popular during the 1950s, the time period in which the film is set. Music washes up against intense, cryptic scene after intense, cryptic scene seamlessly, and Greenwood had an even better feel for Anderson's work after scoring 2007's There Will Be Blood.
The Master of Disguise: Refer to this post for a full discussion of the brilliantly mismatched hip-hop music soundtrack for TMoD, but it absolutely must take the cake sheerly because it has not one, but three theme songs commissioned for the film. All of them are bad, but the effort can't go unnoticed.
Point to: The Master of Disguise. Though I would appreciate if The Master used "M.A.S.T.E.R. Pt. 2" in their credits sequence.
The Master: Of course, it’s not entirely clear who the distinct villain is in The Master – though Lancaster Dodd’s flaws are the most likely culprit to pin, one could also argue that The Cause itself, Freddie Quell’s denial of self and his own problems or the government failing veterans for mental health care could be villains. Is there not a villain inside all of us, writhing beneath our skin, too close to the surface for comfort?
Of course not. There are good guys and bad guys only! The Master cannot discern which is which, which if you ask me is extraordinarily lazy writing. Make up your mind!
The Master of Disguise: The uncontested villain of TMoD is Devlin Bowman (Brent Spiner), who is so bold as to kidnap Fabbrizzio Disguisey (James Brolin) to do his bidding, which involves the theft of some of the country's legendary artifacts. We get to see Brolin, dressed as celebrities just like Jessica Simpson and Jesse Ventura, steal things like the Apollo shuttle, the Liberty Bell and the Constitution for the personal gain of one man who has a full-skin replica of his own face.
If that isn't enough to sway you, it is entirely possible that his character was built around two kid's movie necessities: the need for a villain, and the need for a running fart joke that graces the Bowman storyline.
Point to: The Master of Disguise. Philip Seymour Hoffman does not fart once in this movie, a clear indication that The Master takes itself too seriously. All the great films in history have fart jokes, especially The Shawshank Redemption.
The Master: This film is directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, who had been involved in a handful of productions before including There Will Be Blood (???) and Magnolia (?????). He is known as one of America's greatest working filmmakers, and The Master contains all the classic hallmarks of an Anderson film.
There's a tortured father-son relationship on display, struggles with depression and alcoholism, Joaquin Phoenix mumbling, a specific period piece, and a sweeping allegory for a larger topic all present in the same work. Because there's so much of Anderson in this movie in particular, audience members can feel the sheer weight of it, but there's no question that the script, production and directorial style worked in perfect unison for The Master.
The Master of Disguise: Perry Andelin Blake, previously a prominent production designer for Happy Madison Productions, made his bold 2002 directorial debut in TMoD, and has not directed a film since. Though this salient point has garnered criticism, even from myself, there’s something to be said for knowing when you're at the top of your game.
Point to: The Master of Disguise. To direct more than one movie ever is hubris.
The Master: “If you figure a way to live without serving a master, any master, then let the rest of us know, will you? For you’d be the first person in the history of the world.” - Lancaster Dodd
The Master of Disguise: “I’m going to be a master of disguise.” - Pistachio Disguisey
Point to: The Master of Disguise. These lines are exciting because they contain the title of the movie in them, so it is an extremely close shave. But in the end, duh.
This post has been sponsored by Ted 2, this summer’s hilarious romp through New England made by the gay billionaire filmmaker that I just love.