'The Master': Do you care if it's about Scientology?

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Image Credit: Phil Bray

Paul Thomas Anderson sounds tired of talking about it. Philip Seymour Hoffman is straight-up sick of it. And yet the question won’t go away: How much of The Master is really about Scientology? Anderson has admitted that L. Ron Hubbard was part of the inspiration for his new movie (out this weekend in limited release), in which Hoffman stars as Lancaster Dodd, a cult leader with a team of disciples (played by Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, and Laura Dern, among others) who cling to his every vague pronouncement about the secrets of life. Like Hubbard, Dodd is an avid seaman who preaches an enticing mix of pseudoscience and pop psych in the 1950s. But Anderson has been clear that Hubbard was only one of many influences on his movie, while Hoffman has flat-out said The Master is “not a Scientology movie.”

It’s easy to understand why plenty of people (myself included) would love it if The Master really were a Scientology roman à clef. Who wouldn’t want to see a behind-the-curtain origin story of one of the most-discussed, least-understood religious movements in recent history? The Tom Cruise-Katie Holmes divorce only makes the matter even more timely. And “the Scientology movie” is certainly a quicker read (not to mention an easier sell) than a more nuanced description of the sprawling, purposefully open-ended movie.

But lurking behind the “Is it or isn’t it?” debate is another question that deserves an answer: Why does it matter? To quote Roger Ebert entirely out of context, “It’s not what a movie is about, but how it’s about it.” Any movie — and certainly one with such a pedigreed cast and crew — deserves to be judged on its merits as art and entertainment, not just as social commentary. The Master isn’t a thinly veiled biopic like Citizen Kane or a not-veiled-at-all exposé like The Social Network. If the movie connects with viewers (and so far it’s doing a pretty solid job), it’ll undoubtedly have a lot more to do with its success as a drama than any link — real or imagined — to Scientology.

But that’s just one opinion. What do you think? Do you care if The Master is about Scientology?

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