PLOT: A directionless young man enlists in a self-help program that allows him to expel all of his negativity - literally - in the form of a small creature.
REVIEW: If you thought David Cronenberg's THE BROOD could have been a little cuddlier, then you'll find what you're looking for with THE MASTER CLEANSE, a strangely poignant creature feature from Bobby Miller, making his feature film debut. It's not going to resonate with everyone, and I certainly think it has flaws that hold it back from being truly something special, but it's a unique and amusing little movie helped along by a very strong cast.
Paul Berger (Johnny Galecki) is a nice guy who's found himself in a rather hopeless rut. Jobless and just recently dumped by his fiancee, Paul's got very little in the way of prospects or excitement in his life. This changes when he sees a commercial for a self-help retreat called Let's Get Pure. Paul goes to a seminar and becomes instantly smitten with a beautiful woman named Maggie (Anna Friel), who's also seeking direction in life. Eventually chosen to participate in a weekend "cleanse," Paul and Maggie, joined by obnoxious Eric (Kyle Gallner) and his girlfriend Lily (Diana Bang), are brought to a secluded spot in the woods and met by one of the program's enthusiastic leaders (Angelica Huston) and her somber assistant (Kevin J. O'Connor), who is also participating in the cleanse himself. The newbies will have to await the arrival of Let's Get Pure's founder, the mysterious Ken.
The group is forced to drink a very nasty looking concoction on their first day, which results in some heavy overnight barfing. This barf isn't normal, though. This puke turns into a little creature that resembles a tiny Ghoulie and whines like a baby. Far from being incredibly upset by this (you'll just have to go with it), Paul and Maggie learn to care for these little barf babies, which are actually all of their negative thoughts and feelings bundled up in monster form. That's just part of the cleanse, though. The next part is even more unpleasant.
This seems the potential set up for a ribald horror-comedy in the BAD MILO vein, but THE MASTER CLEANSE upends expectations by going the opposite route, turning out to be a rather sweet, quiet (if still quite weird) dramedy. No real histrionics here, just the gentlest tale of a man and his friendly monster-puke you could fathom. Helping sell this oddball love story is the very appealing lead performance from Galecki, who makes Paul such a likable (if overbearingly so) guy that you find yourself rooting for him no matter what he's contending with. Friel is a very solid co-lead as well, giving what could have just been a typical "dream girl" character a wounded, sympathetic quality.
The creatures are pretty adorable, but they ultimately don't do anything; perhaps due to budgetary limitations, they really just sit there and look sad. Might have been nice to see them more active. (But then again, they're basically freaky metaphors.) The film doesn't quite resonate as masterfully as it might want to (there's something of a tearjerker ending that fell flat for me), but simply taken as a peculiar fable with several pleasant touches and winning performances, there's no reason not to try out this MASTER CLEANSE.