When I first heard that P.T. Anderson was making a movie starring Adam Sandler, I thought I was faced with a dilemma of “unstoppable force hits immovable object” dimensions. What’s a guy to do when he’s vowed to see every movie a certain director makes, and then discovers that the director has casts an unwatchable actor in the lead role? Fortunately, P. T. Anderson also put Phillip Seymour Hoffman in there, which settled the matter: two “must sees” beats a single “can’t bear”.
So let’s cut to the chase: yes, Sander is fantastic in Punch-Drunk Love, the newest film by the director of Boogie Nights and Magnolia. But even so, Sandler-loathers need not worry: with the exception of this aberration, you can go right back to disliking him, because he’ll never again have a role so perfectly suited to his marbles-in-the-mouth, rageaholic, soft-in-the-head schtick.
Sandler plays Barry Egan, a mess of a man who is unlucky in love and nearly everything else. Barry seems nice enough, but it’s pretty obvious that he’s a few croutons short of a salad. For one thing, he was raised with seven sisters, and they have left him a nervous wreck. For another, he seems rather obsessive: he’s currently buying thousands of cups of pudding in an elaborate scheme to get a bunch of Frequent Flier Miles that he has no intention of using. (This aspect of the plot, by the way, is based on a true story). All this makes for a guy that you wouldn’t really want to hang out with, much less date. But then lovely, charming Lena shows up and somehow falls in love with him. It’s hard to tell what Lena sees in Barry; but it’s also hard to tell if she isn’t just as loopy as he. While Barry oscillates between introvertion and aggression, Lena emits a perpetual, low-key, vaguely insane vibe.
And there you go: two charismatic screwballs = one romantic comedy. There’s a whole lot of other stuff going on — miniature pianos and phone-sex chat lines and decorative toilet plungers are all featured prominently — but it’s essentially the Barry & Lena show. Furthermore, Anderson has a habit of tossing completely random and inexplicable stuff into his films, and this one is no exception. The first 20 minutes of Punch-Drunk, in fact, play out like an extended dream sequence. Now, I’m a complete sucker for nonlinear storylines, but I could understand why some might find Punch-Drunk Love pretentious. Hell, it is pretentious, make no mistake, but, like I said, I groove on non sequiturs. What’s interesting, though, is that The Queen, who has a much lower tolerance for pretension than I (she hated Mulholland Drive, I loved it) also quite enjoyed Punch-Drunk, and that’s saying something.
I spent the first nine months of 2002 bitching about how few good movies I’d seen; now, in the last month, it’s been bang bang bang: Das Experiment, How’s Your News and now Punch Drunk, the top three films I’ve seen all year. My only regret is that I can no longer use the name “Adam Sandler” as a synonym for “talentless hack”. Oh well, I still have Eminem. I’ll just have to make a point of not seeing 8 Mile.