A couple years back, I was riding in a Clearwater cab. I was on my way to a candlelight vigil in memory of a woman who died a tragic death after being held against her will for 17 days in the Fort Harrison Hotel. The cab driver was very curious about Scientology and asked a lot of questions.
At one point he asked if there was any connection to Satanism. I gave him a little background about Hubbard and Jack Parsons and their attempts to create the Moonchild. This driver, who had been so interested in Scientology, suddenly said, "Oh c'mon! You're just making this up to make Hubbard look bad."
This driver hadn't heard Hubbard in his own voice praising his "good friend, Aleister Crowley." He hadn't seen any documentation or heard Scientology's silly cover story (repeated on the A&E two hour documentary) that Hubbard had been sent in to "break-up" this Satanic cult. The story was just too unbelievable to be true.
This unfortunately is one of the main flaws with the movie "The Profit." Although many of the events in the life of the fictional L.
Conrad Powers seem to have actually been based on true incidents from the life of L. Ron Hubbard, as presented here they seem wholly unbelievable and work to distance the viewer from being drawn into this story of a cult leader's rise and fall.
The filmmakers have assured us that the movie is based on a composite of various cult leaders but I'm afraid my own knowledge is limited to Hubbard and Scientology so most of my comments will concentrate on those comparisons.
Unfortunately the film opens with a lengthy sequence that concentrates on L. Conrad Powers' involvement with just such a Satanic cult. Led by Zack Carson, the wealthy head of a chemical company, this cult practices rituals in the backyard of Carson's mansion. There science fiction writer Powers spots a naked woman leaping through a bonfire and decides this is the place for him. Luckily, Carson is a fan of Powers' writing so he gets readily welcomed into the house.
This sequence, clocking in at over 20 minutes, grinds the film to a virtual halt even before it starts. We see Powers steal Carson's girl, his boat and his money but little is actually gained dramatically during the amount of time spent in this part of Powers' life.
There is a lot of material that could easily be trimmed. We see Powers going through Carson's desk drawers looking for the financial records which prove that Carson is wealthy and a good target for Power's con. However, we're standing in the middle of a vast mansion and know the guy owns a chemical company. We can assume the guy has money.
Then there is the sequence where Powers proves he is worthy of Carson's confidence by constructing an elaborate gizmo to fool Carson into thinking a ghost is haunting him; a ghost that only Powers can control. To do this Powers goes to Carson's library and reads a book on magic tricks. He finds the ghost trick listed in the book then luckily finds all the parts needed in an unlocked shed on the property. We are to believe that he not only finds all the parts needed but then is so skilled that he can easily assemble them into a working gizmo that projects a ghost image on cue. We also must believe that Carson hasn't read the books on his shelf and wouldn't recognize this as "the ghost gag" from his book of magic. And we also have to accept that the weather plays along with Powers plan and knocks the power out just as Power's gizmo needs darkness for its flickering candle to project an image through a hole in the wall.
All this contrivance is to make Carson accept him as a close friend and confidant but we already have seen the look on Carson's face when he hears a writer he loves is at his home. We can accept that Carson is a fan and is ready to trust him. Get on with it already and drop the ghost gizmo which stretches credulity.
Someone asked me a couple nights ago about "A.I" and among my comments I mentioned some logical points that should have been addressed. Why are we to believe that a company would create a mechanical boy so perfect in every detail except for the fact that he can't take a bite of food or it will get clogged in his machinery and ruin him? It would be simple enough for this company to create a passageway for food to safely pass through the robot boy without hurting his mechanism. They make the boy real in every other aspect. Why not allow the robot boy to "dine" with his family. To do otherwise is to remind everyone at every daily meal that he is not real. It doesn't make sense but it allowed Spielberg to do the "cool scene" of opening up the boy to show spinach clogging his system.
"The Profit" has way too many such illogical ideas that must have seemed "cool" but instead make you wonder "why would they do that?"
Take the wraparound story, for instance. I'm talking about the scenes involving a character named Mitch Cabot who opens the film by visiting Powers on his death bed in a remote, isolated mansion. This high official in the Church of Scientific Spiritualism has orders to come to Powers' deathbed, pick up a book from his wall safe and deliver that book to the new leader of SciSpirit upon Powers' death. That new leader is to be instructed to read the book once, memorize it and destroy it. The book is the autobiography of Powers and while Cabot reads it to Powers' doctor the film flashes back to portions of Power's life starting with the Carson/Satanic scenes. We return to Cabot and the doctor reading the book a number of times throughout the film.
While laying a framework upon which to hang the story of Power's life, the logic of this idea is flawed at best. Why would anyone write a book that says "I am a con man of the highest order who lied about every facet of my life. I was a bigamist. I stole all the research for SciSpirit. I punched my pregnant wife in the stomach and then I went nuts and blamed all my problems on the commies and the global conspiracy. Oh, and I ordered people to break into the FBI and steal documents."
Even if you were to write this tell-all confessional, why would you then tell the new leader of the church to read the book once, memorize it and then destroy it? What good would that do? Well, If you don't stop for a tiny split second to think about it, it kind of sounds "cool." And it gave a convenient framework on which to hang the stories that Peter Alexander wanted to tell.
Let me digress for a moment. Hitchcock created movies in a somewhat similar, disjointed way. He wasn't interested so much in narrative;
he wanted to create memorable sequences that people would talk about.
They are often called set pieces and he was a master of them. For "North by Northwest," he told writer Ernest Lehmann that he wanted:
1) a scene were a person gets shot in the U.N.
2) Cary Grant getting chased by a crop dusting plane through a field where he has no place to hide 3) a big finish in which there is a chase on Mount Rushmore.
He then let Lehmann build a solid story around these set pieces. The difference with "The Profit" is that Peter Alexander falls short of providing that solid narrative to move the film logically from one scene to the next and also fails to produce any memorable set pieces.
While readers of a.r.s know that Hubbard was a penny-a-word, science fiction writer, that he created Dianetics, turned it into Scientology and died with vistiril in his butt, that doesn't mean that unsuspecting audience members can connect similar dots for the on-screen life of L. Conrad Powers. What do devil worshipping, hypnosis, and regression theory necessarily have to do with the cult this leader ultimately forms? Alexander ignores the first rule of screenwriting; each scene should move you logically and dramatically to the next scene. Alexander is only moving as smoothly as he can from one pre-selected anecdote to another. Consequently, his story gets led all over the map while diluting it's message.
Alexander has said that this film is an effort to show how people can be sucked into dangerous, mind control cults but, in fact, there is very little in the film that addresses that issue. We see people follow Powers at various points, such as when he writes his first self help book, but we never really understand why. This is especially true of the later portions of the film when the Church of Scientific Spiritualism is created. With the exception of a promise of immortality and the endorsement of the movie star, "Tom Travers", it is unclear why people are following Powers or how they got involved in the first place.
In fact the movie makes some very unintended endorsements of its own.
For one, it says that auditing works. We see Powers getting one auditing session from a doctor at a V.A. Hospital and curing his impotency. We see Powers give one auditing session to his publisher and curing his asthma. A girl at a book signing gets one session and her vision is corrected. This auditing is pretty powerful stuff and gives the only clue as to why people followed Powers early on with SciMind...because the tech worked.
We also get a ringing endorsement for the power of Satanism. After Powers steals Carson's boat, money and girl, Carson tracks them down and falls to his knees, praying to Satan for assistance. Suddenly the clear skies are replaced by a massive storm which forces the boat to shore. A voice-over from Powers states that "Of course, Carson didn't really create that storm but he thought he did and that showed me the power of the mind." Well, pardon me, but I saw a storm appear from clear blue skies. Movies are a visual medium. You show...not tell.
You've heard the phrase, "If they put that in a movie no one would ever believe it." Even though this incident was said to have supposedly happened, it is not believable on screen. It could possibly work if presented as a memory. For instance, Carson could give his version of what happened. Then it is no longer a recording of fact but is instead seen through his distorted view of the events.
Others may have a different "Rashomon" view of the storm. I still would argue that it is an unimportant tidbit to include in the film but at least it would be less likely to make the movie seem like a string of unbelievable events.
Speaking of unbelievable, what about Powers' amazing ability to hypnotize anyone? Carson teaches this to Powers by dangling a medallion in front of a light and repeating "look at the talisman...look at the light...look at the talisman...look at the light." Powers uses this new ability to hypnotize Carson and then later steals the medallion.
Powers then uses the medallion to hypnotize a doctor who does regression therapy. He steals her research and later turns it into SciMind. Under his spell, Powers tells her that she will forget she ever created this research. That spell worked so well that we never hear from her again. You would think her patients and co-workers at the V.A. hospital would have noticed that she has dropped all her important work or maybe brought up the subject again when SciMind was published in the bookstores. "Hey, Doc, that was yours...remember?
Why don't you sue?"
That is not just a mighty powerful spell but more importantly its a mighty powerful blow to the drama of the story because it ignores the way a real con man seduces you. Instead we get the over-simplified, unsatisfying and unbelievable gimmick of a swinging medallion. This was done for two reasons. One was to give a quick and easy answer to how Powers could achieve all he did. The other was to point out Alexander's theory that Scientology is based on hypnosis. However, rather than make that important point in a sensible way, showing how a process like auditing uses repetitive commands that lead you to a receptive state, the film instead makes the whole idea look silly.
Are we to believe that all cult members are tricked into staring at a medallion? It belittles the experience cult members must endure.
So, rather than explain the cult experience, the film muddies the waters and this is the greatest disappointment of the film. Alexander set out to make a film to educate people about the danger of cults but wound up with a film that merely says Powers was a bad man. That one message is delivered in every frame of the film, in every turgid line of dialog, in every overly dramatic pause. Speaking of dramatic pauses, the running time could be greatly reduced by simply doing away with the great majority of them. Virtually every actor is urged to slow down and take their time before spitting out their lines.
Eric Rath as Powers is the greatest offender. His limited bag of actor's tricks includes ending each of his menacing lines in a whisper. He uses this technique in almost every scene. Long pause...whisper. Since the script provides him with an endless stream of menacing lines, we get to see this note over and over.
Watching a good actor on screen, you should be able to see what the character is thinking. Alexander doesn't trust you to do this.
Taking no chances, he twice has Rath mouth a line he'd like to make sure you catch. When Powers overhears that Carson is the head of Carson Chemicals, you get a close-up of Rath moving his lips. "Carson Chemicals," he tells himself. Later, Carson's girlfriend asks if Powers can join them in a ritual but Carson says no because he's not an adept. In the background, Rath contorts his face and spits out silently, "Adept?"
But then, the entire film is lappy. Lappy. Its a term coined by Milton Berle. In his autobiography, Berle told how he used to demand that his writers create jokes which were broad and instantly understandable. Unlike Sid Caesar who was adored by the critics for his smart, satirical sketches, Berle wanted all of his jokes placed directly in peoples laps so they couldn't possibly be misunderstood.
Is there is an understated moment in "The Profit?" A moment where the intelligence of the audience is respected? I didn't spot one.
Instead we get treated to over the top moments such as this: Powers goes to a private investigator and asks him what type of investigations he does. The PI answers, "Well, there's legal...(slowly lights cigar, sits back in chair, puffs out smoke)...and illegal." This is an actor who looks the part and has talent but whose performance gets undercut by having been directed to be "really evil" at every moment.
This is why the St. Petersburg Times critic called "The Profit" an exploitation film. There is no subtlety in the film whatsoever.
Everything is drawn in broad strokes and bathed in bright colors.
Speaking of colors, the director of photography says he shot the film as a comic book. An odd choice for the subject matter but that was how Alexander's script had simplified the issues.
Other technical elements range from solid to inept. The costumes are the strongest with the exception of the robes in the Carson/Satanic section. They seem to be made of the same thin, shiny material used to make your child look like Darth Vader at Halloween. I wondered if such material was even available in the time period. However, with the exception of the robes, the costumes were all well done and to be applauded.
The sets vary dramatically in quality. By and large, the real world locations are terrific. The settings are most believable when the production got away from the studio sets and out to the real world.
The prop master and set designer have done a good job of dressing the locations for the appropriate era.
Back at the soundstages, things get a little tackier. The worst set is the interior mansion where Mitch Cabot is at Powers' deathbed. You go from the exterior of an impressive looking home to chintzy "cardboard"
walls inside. The flat lighting makes this set look similar to something in an Ed Wood film or a quickie porno. It doesn't help that these scenes also feature some of the worst acting, getting the movie off to a very weak start. Mitch Cabot can't resist snarling his every line.
Alexander has stated that "The Profit" is to be the first part of his trilogy of films. Since Lucas made "Star Wars" every director now wants to make his own trilogy. The next film is supposed to follow the adventures of Mitch Cabot. The last film would center around the critics of SciSpirit. Well, one of the best pieces of show biz advice I ever heard came from Sean Connery. Christopher Reeve went to Connery when Reeve was first cast as Superman. He asked the James Bond star how he could avoid being typecast. Connery told him he should first worry about being good enough to get asked back for a second film.
Ultimately, "The Profit" plods along with no dramatic tension, no characters with which to identify, and gives the audience nothing to think about. Outside of Clearwater, a town which has every reason to want to see a film related even marginally to Scientology, I'm afraid "The Profit" as it stands now offers little to nothing.
Its not too late. The St. Pete Times review should have been a needed wake up call that all is not well with the film. There's no reason to consider this a finished film. Re-think it. Re-edit. Cut away at the fat of the story and the excesses of the performances. Do some professional test screenings with the National Research Group in L.A.
and see what the audiences tell you. Real audience members who aren't regulars on a.r.s. and can give you the feedback needed.
As I left the screening last night, I was met in the hall by a group of teenage guys waiting at the door to see the midnight screening.
They were asking everyone, including me, "what did you think?" I told them it wasn't for me to say but I asked them what they had been hearing and they replied "Negative! Very Negative!" They had big grins on their faces as though they knew "yeah, it may be bad but I can't wait to see a certain cult get blasted." The faces of the people coming out were nowhere near as happy.
I met another group out in the parking lot who were hugging each other goodbye and saying "We'll have to get together again for a GOOD film."
I went over and asked them what they thought and they said "You're not the director, are you?" I said no and they told me they thought it was lousy. That was the general consensus. Ignoring the obvious and blaming the LMT for sabotaging the film or accusing the SP Times' critic of potentially costing someone their life for being honest about the movie won't help a thing.
"The Profit" will live or die because of the quality of the movie.
Nothing else. Listening to hype from people who wish the film to be a success won't help. Instead, give them a better film to trumpet.
As it stands, I give the film 1 and 1/2 stars out of four.
As I was leaving the theater, a downtown Clearwater businessman asked me if I had learned anything from the movie. I told him, "Yes. If someone dangles a medallion in front of me, I wont look at the talisman...I won't look at the light."