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“The Master” of Comedy?

Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film The Master has been promoted as a drama, probably one that will be an Oscar dark horse. The talk surrounding the film coming up to its release couldn’t be separated with comparisons to the Church of Scientology and its founder L. Ron Hubbard, with many suspecting it to be a bold indictment from one of cinema’s premier auteurs today. With such high and specific expectations, it’s hardly surprising that there has been a divide between the reaction of critics and audiences, critics praising it and audience members often leaving the theater bewildered.

What if we were expecting a comedy, albeit a very dark and dry one?

I was part of that group of theatergoers that contributed to The Master setting a new specialty box office record on opening weekend, and I did indeed think that I was going to see Anderson’s Scientology takedown movie. About 2/3 of the way through, though, I found myself busting up, doubling over, guffawing in delight at the flourishes of humor spread very poignantly throughout the film. Let me be clear: I was not laughing ironically at overacting or awkward, disconnected writing or for any other reason for which people watch bad movies and laugh heartily. There are several moments that are purely funny, certainly not like the movie that was advertised in the trailer that was posted a few months ago.

There is plenty of comedy to be found between Joaquin Phoenix’s pure expression of id and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s struggle to be a pure of expression of superego but often coming up short. Freddie Quell (Phoenix) budges so little in character that Lancaster Dodd’s (Hoffman) fails like so many epic fails that permeate every byte on YouTube. Basically, it was really f’n funny to see Phoenix want to fuck everything he sees even when he stumbles into a controversial cult.

With that in mind, is it possible to think that The Master would have been better received by general audiences if its trailer had been cut as a comedy-drama? If the posters showed Phoenix banging his head against a prison bunk bed instead of a composed portrait of himself, Hoffman, or an infamous glass bottle, would there be less decrying of the thinness of a narrative thread?

Many of the Coen Brothers’ films have been classified as comedies of sorts, though, very wryly and darkly so. In fact, if Fargo or A Serious Man, films that really toe the line between drama and comedy, had been promoted as straight drama, perhaps the reaction from audiences would be similar to that of many towards The Master now.

Undoubtedly, there are probably dozens of films that would have worked better as comedies as opposed to dramas, but are left up to the whims of marketing whizzes who believe they can run a bait-and-switch with every movie they promote. That’s why it’ll be fascinating to see what happens with The Comedy, a drama, starring Tim Heidecker.

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