Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Luis Guzman, Mary Lynn Rajskub
It is truly a great thing when a contemporary movie comes out with as much belief — with nary a trace of irony or cynicism — in the sheer power of love, the belief that it can sweep us up in its madness and overwhelm us with its ability to both hurt and heal, the idea that love is what fills in our gaps. In his fourth and most recent film — the surreal, bizarre and completely wonderful Punch-Drunk Love — Paul Thomas Anderson has made just such a movie. In 89 minutes, less than half of his previous film’s running time (the sprawling though stunning Magnolia), Anderson picks us up and takes us on a truly unique journey, showing us a movie we’ve truly never seen before. He challenges the audience and our expectations and allows us to see how truly refreshing it is to watch a story unfold whose path can’t be predicted, something that wasn’t planned out to the letter in some faceless corporate movie office — but rather something that is consistently fresh, invigorating, surprising, and filled to the very brim with love.
Oh yeah, and there’s this Adam Sandler fellow in it, too. He’s one to watch, I think. He can break your heart.
Sandler, doing the best work of his life here by a country mile, is the film’s center, its focus. Appearing in nearly every scene, the movie depends on him and his ability to make us believe in the sad existence of his Barry Egan. If the film hopes to work in any way, on any level, Sandler must deliver nothing short of a wonderful performance. Which is exactly what he does. Of course, some critics have noted that he is not necessarily playing anything other than a more restrained version of the character he has perfected (for lack of a better word) in films such as Happy Gilmore or Big Daddy — but in that regard, I’d have to disagree.
As Barry, Sandler’s performance is full of both nuance and subtlety, the humor of his character more firmly rooted in a deep pathos, allowing us to feel for Barry, rather than to merely laugh at him and his various outbursts. And while it might be funnier to hear Sandler tell a cute girl he has just met that “My girlfriend’s dead you know. She jumped off a cliff and died on impact” (Happy Gilmore), it’s far more rewarding an experience to see him fall deeply, truly in love. Paul Thomas Anderson, who on the surface would seem to have little in common with Sandler and his films, actually manages to direct Sandler into a moving performance that gains miles out of what isn’t said, as opposed to what is. It is about what is shown or hinted at in Barry rather than what is forced down our throats that makes Sandler’s performance — and by extension, Anderson’s direction — so engaging. It’s simply wonderful to watch.
Barry Egan is a lonely man. He is a frustrated man. He is a tormented man. Having been raised among seven sisters intent on ruining his life with their constant chatter and meddling (“Remember when we called you ‘gay boy’ and you’d get all mad? Remember that? Are you still gay?”), and now finding himself running a mundane business selling toiletries to hotel chains in a factory in the middle of Nowhere, California, Egan is a portrait in isolation and sadness as the film begins. And then a harmonium is mysteriously dropped off on the street in front of him, a beautiful girl (a luminous Emily Watson) walks by and asks him to watch her car until the mechanic opens up, and he discovers a loophole in a promotional special that will allow him to obtain a million frequent flyer miles by spending less than 3,000 dollars on Healthy Choice pudding. Remember, this is, after all, a Paul Thomas Anderson film. This is a writer/director not afraid to have a plague-like rain of frogs drop down on his characters. You quickly learn, in his universe, to expect the unexpected.
Eventually, Barry is formally introduced to the girl he had met earlier that morning, Lena Leonard — who works with one of Barry’s seven sisters- – and, despite the rather awkward circumstances surrounding them (Egan is busy answering threatning calls from a phone sex operator who is trying to extort money from him, while all around the factory, things fall and break and people keep stopping in to ask him why he has so much pudding stacked up by his office), Barry and Lena manage to have a wonderful little bit of conversation. He opens up a bit, for the first time in the movie we see him appear almost happy. Watson, timid herself, seems to find the same connection. She asks him to dinner and gives him her address. And so the journey towards love begins…
And Punch-Drunk Love truly is a love story, albeit an utterly and fantastically unconventional one. From the swelling strings and pounding drums on the soundtrack (never overdone or sappy though, thanks to the genius of composer Jon Brion) to the often gorgeous, washed out cinematography and beautifully painted screen wipes, Anderson immerses his film in the feeling of love. Yes, there are other threats in the film, other obstacles Barry must get through on his way to happiness, but through love, he feels he can make it. Besides, any film which can actually have Adam Sandler speak the line “I have a love and it gives me more strength than you could ever imagine,” and not produce a cringe or a titter in the audience — but can actually give you goose bumps — must qualify as a truly great film. Well, happily, Punch-Drunk Love is just that. A glorious melding of the respective talents of Anderson and Sandler — an assured and daring directorial style that brings out Sandler the human as opposed to Sandler the buffoon man-child — this film easily stands as one of the best films released thus far in 2002.
And now I have a new favorite Adam Sandler film, as well.