One-Two Punch

Not just an unlikely Adam Sandler romp, P.T. Anderson's latest is also a neurotic tour de force.

By Sean Burns
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Oct. 16, 2002

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Director: P.T. Anderson
Starring: Adam Sandler, Emily Watson,
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Opens: Fri., Oct. 18

A cockamamie tone poem pitched precipitously between swoony lyricism and violent catastrophe, P.T. Anderson's defiantly avant-garde Punch-Drunk Love is not just the most aggressively nerve-wracking and screamingly neurotic romantic comedy in cinema history, but it will also probably stand for all time as the most willfully abstract, formally challenging picture ever to star Adam Sandler.

That's right, folks. Hell has frozen over and pigs are flying, as we cranky critics happily fill our word counts fellating the star of Mr. Deeds. Is everybody's favorite wedding singer seriously capable of an image-busting tour de force that's sure to be recognized at Oscar time? I honestly have no idea, but I do know his Punch-Drunk performance isn't it.

Don't get me wrong: Sandler is nothing less than brilliant here. (Wow, it's going to take some time for me to get used to saying that out loud.) But a huge part of the movie's cockeyed genius is the way it lets Adam Sandler just be Adam Sandler--only in a radically different context than what we've grown to know and loathe him in.

This isn't one of those credibility-grubbing performances wherein a comic like Jim Carrey buttons up and dulls down for mainstream acceptance. Rather, America's most popular idiot man-child is zig-zagging more ferociously than ever before between aw-shucks humility and apocalyptic rage.

What's so uniquely affecting about Anderson's picture is the way he steadfastly refuses to play the star's patented manic outbursts for cheap laughs. Sure, the clown is occasionally funny in spite of himself. But he's also plenty embarrassing, and more than a little sad. Scary sometimes, too.

Sandler's Barry Egan runs his own novelty toilet plunger business somewhere in the blank-landscaped industrial wasteland of the San Fernando Valley. Perpetually harassed by seven shrieking sisters and seemingly engulfed at all times by chaos and noise, the typically whimpering, polite-to-a-fault Barry occasionally explodes into awkward fits of fury--taking out his pent-up aggression on innocent restaurant bathrooms and unsuspecting plate glass windows. Other days he just can't stop crying.

Anderson orchestrates Barry's anxiety in a swirling vortex of overwhelming aural and visual flourishes. Robert Elswit's jittery, extra-wide widescreen shallow-focus cinematography frequently disrupts the viewer's comfort zone with mammoth dead spaces on either side of the frame while blinding flashes of overexposed sunlight give way to billowing ripples of multicolored, anamorphically distorted lens flare.

A concussive, percussion-heavy score by Jon Brion often drowns out the dialogue, with ample assistance from deafening footsteps, passing tractor trailers, squeaky chairs and the countless other overamplified sounds of a loud and terrifying world. No wonder Barry titters around the movie like an exposed nerve.

But then there is Lena. Beautifully played by Emily Watson with a welcome excess of moony-eyed radiance, she's the pastel-clad embodiment of unconditional love that could possibly rescue poor Barry from his destructive, depressive fun--if only he can find the courage to let her into his frightened, closed-off existence.

The movie itself chills out quite gorgeously whenever these two gaze into one another's eyes--the camerawork calms down and the pummeling soundtrack is swept away by the strains of Shelley Duvall singing "He Needs Me." (Yes movie buffs, that is indeed Harry Nilsson's love theme from Robert Altman's notorious Popeye.)

It's not my place to reveal what exactly all of this has to do with Philip Seymour Hoffman's scumbag mattress salesman, a million frequent flier miles, $3,000 worth of Healthy Choice pudding, a phone-sex blackmail scam or four blond brothers from Provo bearing tire irons and attitudes. But whoever said true love came easy?

The frighteningly talented Paul Thomas Anderson has, at the ripe old age of 32, already chalked up four pictures of such singular vision and balls-to-the-wall audacity that it seems the only folks more ardent than his fans are his detractors. Each successive effort seems only to drive him further out on a limb into love-it-or-hate-it territory. (Those who found fault with Magnolia's biblical denouement are sure to despise Punch-Drunk Love--which takes place in a universe so strange it could conceivably rain frogs every day and no one would even notice.)

But however stylistically diverse, what links Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love is Anderson's gooey, unabashed sincerity. His pictures overflow with such heartfelt affection for misfit characters and social outcasts that when Barry Egan finally announces, " I have a love in my life that gives me more strength than you could possibly imagine," there's nothing even remotely funny about this cornball pronouncement. It's heroic ... even magical. Kinda like the movie itself.

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