We first meet the sad-sack hero of The Master Cleanse as he tries — and fails — to joke around with a stereotypical diner waitress. His goofy grin, however, hides a darker past that the movie carefully tiptoes around. All we are told is that Paul (played by Johnny Galecki) is sad. He’s sad because of some kind of life event involving his partner… or is it ex-partner?
Such sadness needs resolution; enter “The Master Cleanse”. Part juice bar tonics, part new age cult, the master cleanse is a retreat headed by the mysterious Ken Roberts (Oliver Platt), a guru whose success with the program is the stuff of cultish mythology. Paul goes to a meeting, goofy headshot grasped in his hand (they require one for the interview) and it’s there that he meets Maggie (Anna Friel), a woman with a past as full of mystery as misery.
Happily for Paul, he is one of the few selected for the program, a roster that includes Maggie (surprise), as well as a young couple, Eric (Kyle Gallner) and Laurie (Diana Bang). But before the fireworks go off, things take a turn.
To elaborate too much would be a spoiler, suffice it to say that the movie includes in its cast of characters a peculiar bunch of gremlin-like creatures, whose practical effect-based movements are weirdly unsettling, although their strange faces and misshapen bodies are, in a strange way, cute.
The Master Cleanse is a dark comedy with horror elements. It calls to mind the practical-effect-laden horror comedies of the ’80s (Basket Case (1982), Gremlins (1984), Society (1989). It attempts to leverage the potential of the creature-as-metaphor in order to visualize the process of healing and growth, but it doesn’t feel as if it quite knows how to do that. Instead, the audience is left with a lot of fun moments, a lovably depressing hero, and a fun satire of new age spiritualism, but nothing to chew on or ponder after the fact.
That being said, director Bobby Miller displays a budding skill behind the camera. It’s a fun film, excellently cast (Anjelica Huston is fantastic), and in a lot of ways, it’s actually quite original. Making a film about juice cleansing doesn’t seem like the deepest mine of material, but Miller shows that an unconventional topic presents plenty of cinematic potential.
It’s an oddity, to be sure, but on a certain level, the film actually manages to connect emotionally, which strengthens its impact. Paul is something of a caricature, but there’s an element of his character that’s eminently relatable: the striving toward resolution, happiness, et cetera. There’s a sense that his eager participation in the program is due less to conviction in its restorative properties than it is to his desire to find some sort of promise for something better.
In that way, watching the film gives one a sense that, just like Paul, a cheery surface hides something much darker. This element worked. Paul worked. Other elements of the film suffer from tonal issues or narrative oversight. The story of Eric and Laurie feels less like a side narrative and much more like a detraction from an already slim primary narrative.
This extends further, too. The film’s ending leaves a lot to be desired — it’s abrupt, unsatisfying — but it doesn’t leave the film feeling like a wasted watch. It’s a brisk little film with good laughs and fun times waiting to emerge, and it plays extremely well with a crowd, whose reactions to the film’s more grotesquely humorous elements are like a ripple effect.