When director Paul Thomas Anderson said he wanted to make a 90-minute Adam Sandler movie everyone dismissed the comment as a joke. The announcement came shortly after the theatrical release of “Magnolia,” his three hour LA opera that impressed critics with its sprawling, intertwining personalities, but left the masses scratching their heads at the sight of raining frogs. Little did people realize that Anderson was, in fact, serious about working with Sandler. The result is “Punch-Drunk Love,” an intoxicating romantic comedy that owes its greatness to a career redefining performance by Sandler. Yes, that Adam Sandler.
“Punch-Drunk Love” introduces us to Barry Egan (Sandler), a shy, despondent self-employed businessman who specializes in the manufacturing and distribution of novelty plungers. As the movie begins, Barry, wearing a loud blue suit that seems to be his pedestrian superhero costume, witnesses a jarring car crash that is followed immediately by the peculiar appearance of a harmonium that sits ominously on the barren sidewalk outside of his workplace. Director Anderson carefully composes static shots of Barry with the harmonium, making the usual hectic streets of Los Angeles look like a ghost town. After brief consideration, Barry takes the broken instrument into his office where it becomes a sort of strange companion and object of comfort.
Even more interesting to Barry is the appearance of Lena (Emily Watson, “Breaking the Waves”), a friend and co-worker of one of Barry’s seven sisters. The woman politely asks him if it’s all right to park her car outside of his building, but it’s clear she is there for more than a parking spot. From the onset of their relationship, it becomes vividly apparent that “Punch-Drunk Love” is not a typical romantic comedy in any sense. Here the characters are not so cut and dry, but complex personalities with realistic problems. Barry and Lena are as far from normal as can be, and Sandler and Watson illustrate that beautifully with their impeccable acting.
The other women in Barry’s life are not so reassuring; they are the source of his problems. His sisters, perhaps the cruelest siblings this side of “Cinderella,” relentlessly pester Barry about women and his childhood, specifically how they would refer to him as “gay boy.” Sandler subtlety expresses his character’s overwhelming lack of confidence and general unhappiness with great precision, mimicking the small physical nuances in life that are left out of most Hollywood productions.
In a moment of curiosity and loneliness, and one of the more powerful scenes in the film, Barry calls up a phone sex hotline. He speaks with the operator, questioning her about every little procedure and how the service works. In the midst of their discussion, he gives her his credit card number, phone number and social security number, all for the sake of just needing someone to talk to. Anderson rarely breaks from the action, preferring to use long takes to tell his oddball love story. His camera moves gracefully in true Altman style, never leaving his protagonist. It is a true testament to Sandler’s performance, as he is able to carry out the scene with the fervor of a great stage actor.
From there on out, Barry winds up in the middle of a phoney phone sex scam, led by a sleezy mattress man (Phillip Seymore Hoffman, “Almost Famous”), who threatens him with his “brothers,” four blonde gentleman who look like those kids in the 7th grade who smoked behind the school during lunch hour. At this juncture in the film the soundtrack becomes more pronounced than ever, most notably when Anderson cleverly uses the song “He needs me” (from the Robert Altman film “Popeye”) as Barry flees from the derelict thugs. The musical soundscapes of “Punch-Drunk Love” are highlighted by Jon Brion’s score, which perfectly coalesces with the Anderson’s virtuoso imagery.
Who would have guessed the best acting performance of the year would have come from the same man who gave us the awful “Little Nicky” and the insulting remake “Mr. Deeds?” Sandler carries the weight of the film on unassuming shoulders, a role that was written specifically for him. The supporting cast is just as strong, with the always reliable Luiz Guzman and Phillip Seymore Hoffman giving it their usual best, but it is Sandler who essentially makes what initially seemed to be a joke into something whimsical.
Paul Thomas Anderson has crafted an entirely original film that feels genuine and not calculated. His characters lack the superficiality of most films and offer viewers something more tangible. Here is a romantic comedy that doesn’t comply with the rules of the genre, showing a soft, dark underbelly of an otherwise over-sweetened style of Hollywood film. Despite its quirks, “Punch-Drunk Love” has the feel of a classic Hollywood love story. The experience is nothing short of euphoric.