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Film Reviews: Wednesday, October 31, 2002
Punch-Drunk Love
Starring Adam Sandler and Emily Watson. Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Rated R.
The Man in the Blue Suit

Punch-Drunk Love proves Adam Sandler is more than just a waterboy.

By KRISTIAN LIN

Throughout Adam Sandler’s career, movie critics have pretty much agreed that his movies sucked, but a significant minority of us always said that he wasn’t the problem so much as his smug, formulaic, sexist, extremely unfunny material. Punch-Drunk Love is vindication for us, and, man, is it sweet. The thing is, in many ways it’s the same as every other Adam Sandler movie. The difference is that writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) is running this show, and the result is damned near magical.

We begin with Barry Egan, a wholesale novelty-item dealer in Anderson’s beloved San Fernando Valley. As in all other Sandler films, his life is changed by a beautiful, perfect female — in this case an Englishwoman named Lena (Emily Watson) — who falls for the maladjusted but good-hearted young man. As in no other Sandler film, the young man is persecuted by thugs after unwisely giving personal information to a phone sex operator who’s fronting a ring of lowlife criminals based in a mattress store in Utah.

Barry will be familiar to Sandler’s fans. He’s a shy, inarticulate guy emasculated by his seven older sisters, who phone him at work several times a day and call him “Gayboy” for their own amusement. He does have some resources, as shown by his brilliant, cracked scheme to exploit a loophole in a food company’s marketing campaign by buying $3,000 worth of pudding. Still, he’s such a mess that he sometimes cries uncontrollably for no apparent reason. He fits right in with the losers who populate Anderson’s films; you can easily imagine Philip Seymour Hoffman or John C. Reilly playing the part, though it’d be vastly different in their hands. The perfect emblem of Barry’s loserdom is the electric-blue business suit that he wears for the entire film (except for two brief scenes), a great costume designed by Mark Bridges that captures Barry’s pathetic attempt to impress people as an adult.

Clearly, Anderson understands the Sandler persona better than Sandler himself, finding a dark side to the naďve man-child. Sandler’s characters all have a violent streak, but his other movies play it for laughs. Here, Barry’s polite exterior conceals so much anger that little setbacks make him kick in a glass sliding door or destroy a restaurant men’s room. His outbursts are terrifying, more so because they’re wordless, and Sandler plays them with a rare fury. With his small frame and high-pitched voice, the actor looks truly vulnerable for the first time. Barry finally stands up to one of his sisters in a tearful, semicoherent phone conversation, and Sandler carries it off in bravura fashion. He’s equally good with Barry’s lighter moments — an impromptu tap dance in a supermarket aisle is a bit of pure joy.

To make things interesting, his star is pitted against a bad guy who’s just as unstable and violent as he is. Barry’s chief tormentor turns out to be a two-bit extortionist named Dean (a skanky Hoffman). He locates Dean and screams threats at him over the telephone, but Dean thwarts him in mid-rant with a hotheaded tantrum of his own. What makes the scene so satisfying, aside from the fire in Hoffman’s eyes, is the sight of Sandler temporarily taken aback by someone else behaving in such a Sandleresque manner.

This movie is not only Sandler’s finest moment, but Anderson’s, too. Whereas Boogie Nights and Magnolia ran two and a half and three hours respectively, this movie clocks in at 89 minutes. This is his most focused and grounded film, though it’s leavened by some surreal touches. In the opening scene, Barry witnesses a horrific traffic accident while standing outside his workplace, which is immediately followed by a man in a taxi pulling up and placing a harmonium (like a small piano) on the sidewalk in front of him. This seemingly random incident and several others figure in the main story, but only loosely. Anderson’s structural sense, subtler here than ever, makes the film so much of a single piece that it’s easy to overlook how disparate its storylines are.

And who knew he could do straightforward romance so well? Anderson doesn’t quite succeed in making Lena into a distinct character, but Watson, soft and cuddly as a teddy bear, strikes up a most unlikely groove with Sandler. The sequence in which Barry runs to Lena’s apartment to kiss her, only to get lost amid the building’s corridors, only to find her again is both richly funny and terribly poignant. Jon Brion’s score keeps up with the film’s shifting tones and soars with its delirious highs. The movie’s balletic final shot is so perfect that you’ll either get choked up or be unable to stop smiling.

Does all this mean Happy Gilmore and Mr. Deeds are safely in the past? We can only hope so, but even if that isn’t the case, this strange, thrilling movie is worth a few idiot comedies. Hey, if Adam Sandler has a great film in him, maybe there’s a decent one in Tom Green. Movies like Punch-Drunk Love make you believe anything is possible.


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