Punch-Drunk Love, the latest movie from master filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson, is a fresh, subdued playlet of a comedy from a director famed for grand melodramatic spectacle. It has the same brand of cinematic flair that nourished Anderson’s modern classics Boogie Nights and Magnolia, but it’s a matured sort of flair; it’s quieter, more sparingly used. What Anderson has created with Punch-Drunk Love is not his best work, but it’s certainly his artiest—formally brilliant, deliberately paced and rife with transcendent moments. Oh, and it stars Adam Sandler.
Not, mind you, as the sort of crazed, braying idiot that Sandler’s been playing with fair consistency ever since his “Saturday Night Live” days, but as the deadpan-voiced everyman with the sweetly game smile that he’s tended to play in his past films’ quieter scenes. Here, he plays Barry Egan, a blue-suited salesperson with a warehouse office, seven emasculating sisters and a problem with emotional stability. Sandler’s performance is finely modulated, its simmering tenor punctuated by hilarious bursts of rage and passion. It’s a two-gear acting style that aligns marvelously with Anderson’s measured sense of storytelling.
Anderson’s story begins with Barry in the dumps, burdened with a trying job and a smothering family, and goes on to track his journey towards happiness and fulfillment. Barry’s catalyst for this journey comes in the form of Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), with whom Barry becomes so smitten that he follows her on a trip to Hawaii. At the same time, he gets to exercise his developing backbone when he becomes the target of a extortionist phone sex operator who dispatches goons to shake Barry down for cash.
All in all, it’s a spare, simple odyssey, made to seem even slower thanks to Anderson’s continued love of lengthy takes and time-killing, character-building prattle. It never stops dead, but it feels long even for its 90-minute running time.
And yet, at the same time, Anderson’s work here is as wise and assured as anything else he’s done; he knows the difference between fair and unfair characterizations, he understands the dimensions of forgiveness, and he’s enamored with the potential for magic in the everyday. Most of all, he believes in the self-improving power of love; it is love that provides a channel for Barry’s rage, turning him into a kind of superman—focused, empowered, yet dependent on Lena for his strength.
Barry’s evolution spurs a change in our perceptions of Sandler as well. In Punch-Drunk Love’s first half, Barry holds our interest far more as a temperamental volcano than as a patient, low-key professional; it’s hilarious to watch him suddenly go on a window-breaking rampage, or dissolve into quiet sobs without warning in mid-conversation, or silently walk into a bathroom and rip it to shreds with his bare hands. But as he falls for Lena, Barry’s energy grows to serve a normal, workable emotion; his outbursts are no longer meaningless cries into a void, but rather are to some self-improving purpose. And, as Barry uses his emotional problems to become a happier human being, Sandler channels his flair for comic instability and rage in such a way that it makes him a more effective and believable dramatic actor; when an evolving Barry, looking for Lena, lets loose at his sister midway through the film, the lack of artifice in Sandler’s performance is remarkable to behold.
Anderson, working for the fourth time with cinematographer Robert Elswit, uses Sandler’s flashes of animalism to great visual effect; the film’s most lyrical image is of a silhouetted Sandler charging down a dark city street with the manic panic of a rabid cheetah, his tie flapping behind him in hypnotic rhythm. Following through on the theme is composer Jon Brion, who delivers a stripped-down, percussion-heavy score that flowers into a harmonium-accented love theme whenever Lena crosses Barry’s path.
Watson, it must be noted, is excellent as Lena, suffusing her with a tender, huge-eyed docility that’s an able contrast to Barry’s bouts of high emotion. Nearly as good in tiny roles are Anderson veterans Luis Guzman as Barry’s eternally arch-faced co-worker and the ever-sublime Philip Seymour Hoffman as a crass Utah entrepreneur.
Punch-Drunk Love will almost certainly flop. It’s short on visual energy, rendering television advertising useless, and its built-in audiences will scorn it: it’s not the sort of over-the-top fare that attracts Sandler’s fans, while Anderson’s cult, salivating over the prospect of another high-octane meditation in the Magnolia vein, will likely see it as an agreeable but minor work. Years from now, it will probably surface at the Coolidge as part of their series of flops from famous directors. Nevertheless, I’ll defend it; it’s slow and somewhat slight, but there’s so much joy and intelligence stored up in its frames that it could never be called ephemeral.