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Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2003

The clown does good as psycho

Punch-Drunk Love

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Running time: 95 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing

Sometimes striving for greatness is an immobilizing affliction. Look at Stanley Kubrick, who went from making films every couple of years to once a decade by the end of his career. You have to wonder whether Paul Thomas Anderson was beginning to feel that kind of pressure, the need to trump himself.

News photo
Emily Watson and Adam Sandler in "Punch-Drunk Love"

I'd certainly not be alone in saying that Anderson's "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia" were two of the best films of the past 10 years; shaped like symphonies, rich in color and detail, dense with characters and subplots, poignant in their aching pleas for acceptance. Indeed "Magnolia," with its epic, spiraling structure, and a climax that involved a biblical rain of frogs, left one wondering what could Anderson possibly do next?

One suspects he just said, "Ah, f*** it," and decided to try something new.

"Punch-Drunk Love," his latest, is quite removed from his work so far. No tangle of overlapping characters and stories. No manic, breakneck pace. No porn stars, coke-heads, or incest victims: This is an Adam Sandler comedy, after all.

That's a hard one to get your head around, that an actor's director like Anderson (who's worked with Julianne Moore, Gwyneth Paltrow, William Macy and Samuel Jackson) would choose to work with Sandler, a B-grade clown whose works so far -- "Little Nicky," "The Water Boy," "Mr. Deeds" -- have been reliably sophomoric. Then again, Anderson was the guy who finally tore a great performance, way out of type, from Tom Cruise in "Magnolia," and perhaps the challenge of doing the same to Sandler appealed to him.

On the surface, Sandler's character in "Punch-Drunk Love" -- Barry, a chronically flustered salesman of novelty toilet accessories and an obsessive buyer of Healthy Choice pudding -- seems the type of sweetly childlike simpleton Sandler has done so often.

But wait, here's where we get Anderson in the mix, stirring up the barely repressed self-loathing and rage that lurks beneath this nebbish's placid facade. Sandler gives us an unnerving performance, kind of a post-modern Jerry Lewis, where we can't tell if he's funny nuts or scary nuts. When he leans over his girlfriend with a loopy grin and says, "You're so cute I'd like to scoop out your eyeballs," it's way more creepy than kawaii.

We begin to see that Barry -- like William Macy in "Magnolia" or Mark Wahlberg in "Boogie Nights" -- is a guy who can't seem to escape the psychic wreckage of his youth. Hell, give the guy credit, he's trying, showing up to work in a crisp blue suit (where his coworkers wear jeans) and being overly polite to everyone.

But when one of his seven sisters calls him at work, berating him on the phone ("Go back to chatting with your customers, you phony f***ing piece of s**t!"), or another tries to set him up with a coworker, or the lot of them tease him about how they used to call him "gayboy" as a kid, well, it's obvious the dude has "issues." And it's real obvious when he smashes the windows at his sister's house, the same thing he did as a kid.

Anderson dances us through a skimpy plot that hinges on whimsical little events: Barry comes into work early and is standing by a still deserted urban strip when an SUV comes tearing down the road, rolls over and disgorges an oversized harmonium by the curb before driving off in a roar. After much nervous hesitation, Barry drags the damaged instrument into his office. When his boss (Luis Guzman) comes in and asks him, "Why is it here?", Barry can only reply "I don't know!" (But the discerning viewer will be raising his hand and squirming in his seat, saying, "I know! I know! It's a symbol!")

Barry's freak-out at his sister's place precludes meeting his blind date, but Lena (the always excellent Emily Watson) is a persistent type, who tracks him down to his office and bluntly asks him out. Barry would really, really like to, but he's embarrassed by the stacks of chocolate pudding cartons that line his office -- all part of an elaborate scheme to earn frequent-flyer miles -- and there's this girl from a phone-sex line he called who's trying to extort money from him, calling him at work to shame him into paying up. (The phone-sex sharks, led by Philip Seymour Hoffman in his seedy, beer-bellied Lester Bangs incarnation, are definitely the film's best joke.)

The story seems of less interest to Anderson than the character study; the amusing pudding scam, for example, is pretty much dropped once it can no longer show anything about Barry's anal, obsessive tendencies. This compares unfavorably with the deliciously synched storylines of Anderson's earlier films, but Sandler does redeem things by squeezing some warped humor out of the role, like when he goes on a dinner date with Lena: "Your sister tells me you threw a hammer through the window," says Lena. "Wait here, I'll be back," says Barry in his weedy little voice, then proceeds to go to the men's room and tear the place apart in an insane rage, before calmly going back and sitting down at the table. The manager soon appears, asking Barry to leave immediately. Lena is confused, but Barry says only, "We should go, I don't like it here."

If that's your idea of a punch-line, then the off-beat humor of "Punch-Drunk Love" may appeal. It's got that quirky vibe that fueled, say, "The Royal Tennenbaums," especially in the soundtrack. Though for a director who seems to have absorbed the best influences of Robert Altman, it was a surprise to note the only apparent influence here was the song "He Needs Me," as sung by Shelley Duvall from Altman's worst film, "Popeye." Overall, this one's a curious detour in Anderson's career, but perhaps "good" is a much-needed break from "great."

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