Lowered Expectations

A match made in PR heaven, Punch-Drunk Love brings together Hollywood's most doggedly lowbrow young comic and its most fearlessly grandiose young director; the proponent of arrested development meets the professional enfant terrible. This avant-garde studio production is predicated on the mild disconnect of vulgarian Adam Sandler playing the “Adam Sandler character” in a concept created by the wildly ambitious Paul Thomas Anderson.

What's more, the movie is a romantic comedy. Anderson's three previous features (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights and Magnolia) are all characterized by a distinctive loser's-lounge atmosphere. Punch-Drunk Love attempts to let some sunshine in, if barely—Anderson's fans won't be too surprised to learn that the mood is still a bit dark. Set in the bleak vastness of the San Fernando Valley, Punch-Drunk Love is essentially downbeat in its studied sight gags, fatalistic mantra of recurring riffs, and glum (if pratfall-prone) protagonist. A carefully conceived opening sequence sets the tone with Sandler's Barry Egan in an empty warehouse, seated at his desk and working the phone. His enigmatic business dealings are complemented by the vehicular weirdness on the street outside, which sets up his meet-cute with co-star Emily Watson.

A dealer in novelty plumbing supplies, unlucky in love and henpecked by seven sisters, Barry is a mild-mannered doofus whose masked depression is apt to erupt in violent aggro—as when, at a family gathering, he suddenly goes berserk and kicks in one sister's picture window. Barry has no depth, but his bland exterior is a container for unconscious desire. (His most frequent line is “I don't know.”) It's no particular stretch for Sandler to play this Happy Gilmore type, although Anderson generally puts a lid on the star's trademark antics—thus adding another level of repression even as he emphasizes Sandler's iconic stature. (An iridescent blue sports coat and semi-crew haircut serve to reference Jerry Lewis—as does Sandler's daring absence of chemistry with the nearly as eccentric Watson.)

Although Punch-Drunk Love was evidently written with Sandler in mind, Anderson's immediate inspiration was the case of a California civil engineer who, by reading the fine print on a promotional coupon, discovered a loophole and managed to accrue more than a million frequent-flyer miles by purchasing only $3,000 worth of Healthy Choice pudding. Nothing in Punch-Drunk Love has this level of obsessional complexity—except perhaps the prolonged use of an annoyingly whimsical song from Robert Altman's Popeye. But the pudding scam does serve to establish Barry's unique, near autistic perspective. He's as emotionally remote a figure as any of the Valley denizens in Magnolia.

Indeed, as resident sacred monster, Sandler seems isolated by—as well as in—the movie. The cast is stocked with nonprofessionals, including most of the women who play Barry's sisters, and neither of the Anderson regulars—Luis Guzmán and Philip Seymour Hoffman—who have been drafted for the task seem to know how to engage the star. In the comic set piece, impressively shot in a single long take, lonesome Barry dials a phone-sex line for a conversation that reaches maximum absurdity with a climactic extortion. Anderson is a gifted director of actors, but Sandler, save for this majestic solo, barely reacts. Rather than a goofy throwaway, the scene becomes the motor that will set the movie's course to ensure a climax in which the star goes ballistic.

Punch-Drunk Love has an admirable disdain for audience expectations. As offbeat comedies go, Anderson's is more stringent and less literary than Being John Malkovich or The Royal Tenenbaums, and the understated classicism is sometimes reminiscent of Albert Brooks—although, needless to say, Brooks is far funnier. But then Anderson isn't really chasing laughs or Scorsese or (Olive Oyl's “He Needs Me” notwithstanding) Altman; his analytical style is a return to Hard Eight. He's running a reductive riff. (There's a lovely extended bit on the generic nature of Valley apartments.) Punch-Drunk Love is as perversely underwritten as Magnolia was deliberately overstuffed.

Unfortunately, this bold high concept only carries Punch-Drunk Love so far. (Perhaps it needs to be seen with diminished expectations to be fully appreciated.) As elegantly crafted as it often is, Anderson's movie is essentially a one-trick pony that, hampered by an undeveloped script, ultimately pulls up lame. PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE WAS WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON; AND STARS ADAM SANDLER, EMILY WATSON, LUIS GUZMÁN, PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN AND MARY LYNN RAJSKUB. NOW PLAYING AT SELECT LA THEATERS.

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