Chances are, you missed the The Master during its theatrical release last year. (It grossed only $16 million, playing at select theaters). And unless you were pretty bummed about missing it, chances are you didn't take the trek to the Cinematheque last weekend to check it out either. If nothing else, you may have seen that hypnotic trailer series. The film stars Phillip Seymour Hoffman as an L. Ron Hubbard-esque character who takes a drifter played by Joaquin Phoenix under his proselytizing wing. It marks the fourth collaboration of Hoffman and director Paul Thomas Anderson. Anderson first cast Hoffman as a gay boom operator in the 1997 porn industry flick Boogie Nights, his breakout role.
But the only Anderson/Hoffman offering available instantly on Netflix is the 2002 cerebral romantic drama Punch-Drunk Love. It centers on Barry Egan, a maladjusted California nobody who sells themed bathroom plungers and the like. He's played not by Hoffman but by Adam Sandler, in his first real ascent from the Happy-Madison mausoleum. The film is a jaunty, unconventional love story and Hoffman's role is small but essential. He plays a mattress-store owner who moonlights as a sex phone line supervisor and coordinates the harassment and extortion of Egan. P.T. Anderson is known for his sweeping, ultra-long movies, but Punch-Drunk Love represents a deliberate effort to tell a story in 90 minutes (so it's more manageable if you acknowledge the legitimacy of things like, you know, bedtimes). Hoffman's screen time is limited, but his telephone shouting match with Sandler late in the film is one of the dramatic highlights. Red in the face, Hoffman screams "Shut up!" like 1,000 times in a row and makes each repetition a revelation.
He's tacitly acknowledged as one of the premiere character actors in Hollywood, but it wasn't until his 2005 portrayal of Truman Capote in Capote that Hoffman garnered an Academy Award. It's a breathtaking performance which at first seems caustic and excessively mannered. But the transformation is remarkable. The film tells the story of Capote's seminal nonfiction novel In Cold Blood, while chartering the emotional battering the author endured during the process. His obnoxious solipsism is unpeeled with exquisite texture and grace here and Hoffman masters both the gregarious highs and deeply solitary lows. Plus, it's a fun biopic for the literary high-brow types. Bob Balaban plays an extraordinary William Shawn, Capote's editor at The New Yorker, and Catherine Keener is elegantly subdued as Harper Lee during the publication and explosion of To Kill a Mockingbird.
The very next year, as if to reclaim the lower octaves of his speaking voice, Hoffman lent his talents to Mission Impossible: III. There's a tradition of Hollywood's finer actors portraying villains in big-budget romps, and Hoffman might not have been able to resist the opportunity to juxtapose so dramatically his Truman Capote with the black market criminal mastermind Owen Davian (or to work with director J.J. Abrams, who at that time was enjoying the zenith of his fame at LOST's hands). Hoffman is in only 10 percent of the film, but his scenes are intense, almost to a fault. They seem to be a microcosm for the time-bomb style high-stakes tension upon which the espionage action genre generally and Ethan Hunt specifically, rely It's streaming on Netflix, folks, and the action does not stop.