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"Punch-Drunk Love" Review


Title: Punch-Drunk Love

Starring: Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, Luis Guzman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mary Lynn Rajskub

Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Rating: R for strong language including a scene of sexual dialogue.

Review by Stephen Silver

They're quite an odd couple: esoteric auteur Paul Thomas Anderson and sniveling simpleton Adam Sandler. They've joined forces on the new film "Punch-Drunk Love" and while it's every bit as bizarre and off-beat as expected, both principals have apparently learned enough from one another to make the sort of film neither of them ever could've pulled off on his own.

As writer/director of 1997's "Boogie Nights" and 1999's "Magnolia," Anderson made a name for himself making epic ensemble dramas with a flair for visual style and an appreciation for influences from Scorsese to Altman to Tarantino. Adam Sandler made his name by cultivating the persona of a wild and immature man-child on "Saturday Night Live" in a series of lowbrow comedies over the past decade, always playing likable characters who may engage in antisocial behavior, but at least it's funny antisocial behavior, so no viewer feels any concern.

Barry Egan, Sandler's character in "Punch-Drunk Love," is Sandler's usual character minus everything that normally makes him grating: gone are the incessant mugging, the cringe-inducing high-pitched "funny" voices, and most importantly, his hack college dorm buddies who have written and/or directed all of his films. Instead Sandler, while still prone to occasional fits of violence, has a much more natural, subdued delivery- and more importantly, he's finally working for the first time with a a top-notch director who knows how to best utilize the parts of Sandler's persona that have never before been glimpsed. So while Barry is undoubtedly an "Anderson character" (complete with the alienation, the social unease, etc.), he's also still a "Sandler character"as well- therefore, it would be downright wrong to say that he's "playing against type."

Aesthetically, Anderson does his usual excellent job, utilizing a highly unique visual style (lots of psychedelic colors and light coming from unnatural places). The music is delightfully unconventional as well, with a creepily offbeat score by Jon Brion augmenting Shelley Duvall's repeated refrain of "She Needs Me," from "Popeye"- allowing Anderson to once again pay homage to his cinematic idol, Robert Altman. In a way "Punch-Drunk Love" is not unlike Larry David's sitcom "Curb Your Enthusiasm"- its hero is so socially inept that it's often excruciating to watch him, yet watch (and enjoy) we do.

Barry Egan is a young sad sack who operates a business in which he sells novelty toilet plungers out of a large warehouse and is hounded by his seven sisters, all of whom (led by the ubiquitous character actress Mary Lynn Rajskub) ridicule him in the cruelest manner imaginable virtually around the clock. Clad for the entire movie in an electric-blue suit, Egan's other diversions include a scheme to earn unlimited frequent-flier miles through a Healthy Choice pudding promotion and his battle with a crooked phone sex business, whose boss is Anderson regular Philip Seymour Hoffman. Then, through one of the sisters, Barry essentially stumbles into the titular affair, with an Englishwoman (played by Emily Watson) who saw his picture and found him attractive. And despite the character's myriad flaws and neuroses, they fall in love.

The affair between Sandler and Watson succeeds in spite of (or perhaps because of) the fact that it's so unconventional. We're used to seeing women in dramatic love stories who persist in loving alpha-male types against their better judgment, but Lena Leonard is no Carmella Soprano, and Barry Egan is sure as hell no Tony. But this also isn't any Woody Allen-esque love story where the strange but harmless nebbish gets the girl to in order satisfy the director's hidden fantasies- Barry is a man who may very well have serious emotional problems, yet he's still a sympathetic character, and Lena says that most of all. She loves Sandler's socially retarded character whether he asks crazy or normal, whether he lies to her or tells her the truth. A weakness of the film may be that we learn next to nothing about Lana as the character, but through the prism of Barry, the fact that she loves him despite his faults may be all that is necessary. Their romance recalls the affair from Anderson's "Magnolia" between John C. Reilly's cop and Melora Waters' coke addict- it's about a couple that loves each other even though one of them is deeply flawed and the other just plain clueless.

The film isn't without some minor flaws however. Namely, the phone-sex part of the plot strikes me as more than a little implausible- does this company steal thousands of dollars from every single person who calls their phone-sex line? With an ad in a newspaper, wouldn't they get hundreds of calls a day? If so, how can they manage that with only seven employees, and why wasn't such an obvious scam busted the first day they tried it? And the pudding subplot (while amusing, and based on a true story to boot) is funny and charming, it doesn't come across as entirely necessary to film itself; I'm guessing Anderson heard about the real pudding guy, but didn't feel as though the story merited an entire movie of its own.

While not as electric as "Boogie Nights" nor as deeply profound as "Magnolia" (though considerably shorter than both), "Punch-Drunk Love" represents a new direction for Paul Thomas Anderson, and proves that he's able to pull off a complex character study about one character, as opposed to a dozen. And as for Adam Sandler, it shows he has the talent to pull off much more ambitious projects than his usual dumb comedies.

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