Ok I’ll try to be more fair.
There is no real story. There are only two characters. They meet, they clash, the dissonance we witness is the stuff out of which we are supposed to extract insights.
There is an important nautical metaphor throughout. Visually, it’s perfect, deep blues, sandy browns (from the opening on the beachside, to the close-ups of Joaquin’s skin texture), creamy whites. Joaquin is a drifter, Hoffman is the Master of the ship. Chaos vs. order.
So far, so good.
Why does Joaquin have to be a drunk, off more than mere alcohol, but dangerously toxic substances like developing chemicals and paint thinner? Hard drugs. Post-traumatic stress disorder? We don’t know what he witnessed during the war, it’s never shown. He might have just been stationed without seeing any action. This is ambiguous. Did the war break him, or was he always this way?
Let’s say he was always like this. We do see him taking on a seaman job leaving his girlfriend, and never coming back to her. Did he forget? Maybe he’s always lacked focus (hence why he works as portrait photographer). Preferring to cherish a memory, turn it over in his mind, instead of engaging in togetherness. Maybe he fears the loss of self, his internal analytical contemplative voice. The introspective viewer.
Hoffman, the charlatan, the spiritual scientist, the cult leader, the hypnotist, who recalls his past lives. Perhaps he is also a paranoid cocaine addict? Expensive habit. From Freud to Conan Doyle. Useful for writing, elaborating complex thoughts, logical traps. But why? What is the ultimate purpose? Could it be wealth? The whole performance, just to live lavishly, enjoy luxury? It’s not too clear. I think that he believes his own bullshit, such as that he will reincarnate and literally inherit his own kingdom in some kind of time-loop continuum. Isn’t this what every cult is about? To plant a Trojan horse inside the brain so as to epigenetically modify future generations and rightfully reclaim the throne upon return to the Earthly realm. Complete madness.
So here’s what I think… P.T. Anderson thinks he’s like Joaquin’s character: broken, but quizzical, introspective but not squeamish, aggressive, sexual, but romantic, nostalgic, melancholic. Hoffman’s character is what other people want him to be: all-knowing, controlling, committed, enthusiastic, manipulative, conspiratorial.
I still like this, because it’s about something internal, very hard to articulate. But I think that in the end I prefer Soderbergh’s idea of cinema more than this secret, self-involved, navel-gazing.