Anderson shows Sandler actually knows how to act

Movie Review

October 25, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

SUN SCORE

***

In Punch-Drunk Love, Paul Thomas Anderson pioneers a whole new genre - the romantic black comedy - and uses it as a showcase for a performer critics have rarely seen as dark, amorous or funny: Adam Sandler. The result is a treat for Sandler fans and a revelation for those of us who've spent the last decade wondering what on earth his appeal is.

As this quirky and compelling tale unfolds, Anderson, the adventurous writer-director of the sprawling Boogie Nights and Magnolia as well as the underrated gem Hard 8, proves he has studied Sandler's hit movies, analyzed his performances - and realized how they connect to his core male audience (and to indulgent females, too).

A lot of newsmagazine articles have been written about Americans' prolonged adolescence, but as the hero of Punch-Drunk Love - a distributor of novelty toilet plungers - Sandler creates a character who combines violent adolescent insecurities with a sensitivity so easily bruised and encompassing it can only be called infantile.

In public, he's polite and evasive, determined not to reveal his feelings, which are more intense and savage than anyone could dream. With his family, or even in the privacy of a restaurant men's room, he erupts into seemingly aimless fury that to us makes perfect sense. He looks right at home in Anderson's trademark vision of L.A.'s San Fernando Valley as a wide-open yet alienated suburbia. Barry has barely survived the claustrophobic emotional life generated in too many close suburban households.

He's grown up with seven sisters - and as they continue to baby him under the guise of helping him, it becomes clear that their idea of sisterly love contains too much condescension and obligation. Their semi-affectionate mockery and concern surrounds Barry like a caul. It makes him feel enclosed and cut off from the real world even when he's out on his own, in a business he started in a warehouse space in back of an auto shop. That makes him angry and violent.

As Barry tries to reset his emotional equilibrium and defuse his own ticking-bomb mentality, the action hinges on four events: his attempt to win a lifetime's worth of frequent-flier miles by shrewdly manipulating a Healthy Choice-sponsored contest; his appropriation of a harmonium that has been dropped, inexplicably, on the curbside outside his business; his pitifully callow use of a phone-sex service for some female contact; and his meeting with a radiant woman named Lena (Emily Watson), who works with one of his toxic sisters but is uninfected by them.

Director Anderson brings these strands together with escalating tension yet with less than full emotional persuasiveness. The movie is as off-kilter as Barry is because it's too closely tuned to his brain- waves. He moves through a universe filled with unforeseen disasters and random acts of unkindness, and Anderson brings Barry's uneasiness home with a jittery percussive soundtrack and an editing tempo that is alternately languorous and jabbing: an elongated staccato.

Anderson may want us to experience love as a many-splendored thing when Barry flies to Hawaii and courts Lena against sultry island backdrops. Yet all the movie offers in this section are twists on cliches - such as Barry and Lena's pillow talk about how they'd like to wreck each other's faces. Watson gives off her usual glow and acts with bone-deep commitment but can't supply the romantic element of this romantic black comedy all by herself.

Still, Anderson gets the best work in several years from supporting players Luis Guzman and Philip Seymour Hoffman. As Barry's lieutenant in the plunger business, Guzman plays a man so easily cowed he starts wearing a suit when Barry does - it's like a visual pun on the phrase "following suit," and Guzman pulls it off with a hilarious deadpan. As the sleazy owner of the phone service (and a mattress company), Hoffman is Barry's worst nightmare: He exudes a debased version of masculine confidence.

Anderson's use of Sandler is superbly intuitive, whether Barry is looking longingly at that harmonium as if God will catch him doing something naughty or dancing through supermarket aisles like a lanky nerd Astaire. Punch-Drunk Love brings Sandler not only into the human race, but also from eternal kid-brotherhood into maturity. He's a welcome figure: the anti-Peter Pan.

Punch-Drunk Love

Starring Adam Sandler and Emily Watson

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Released by Sony

Rated R

Time 105 minutes

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