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Sobering Experience 

Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson would seem to have his career turned upside down. A child prodigy who made sophisticated shorts in his teens, Anderson broke through to feature filmmaking in 1996 at age 26 with the widely praised thriller Hard Eight. Then came back-to-back original-screenplay Oscar nominations for Boogie Nights and Magnolia, the latter an astonishing masterpiece. And now appears Punch-Drunk Love, a funny and likable romantic comedy but a film with far less heft than the work preceding it. I would have found the current movie "promising" had it come first. On the heels of the earlier pictures, however, it seems disposable, a pleasing but forgettable interlude in what Anderson's fans hope will be a long and challenging career.

Punch-Drunk Love is the story of Barry Egan (Adam Sandler), a small-business novelties manufacturer and the lone brother to seven bossy sisters. In the gynocracy of his family, Barry has grown up without allies, and his sisters have taken lifelong pleasure in tormenting him. Though functional, he seems shell-shocked. He doesn't possess the tics and twitches of the physically abused, but he's given to fits of violence and strange obsessions. Most recently he's decided to corner the market on a particular brand of pudding offering frequent-flyer mile coupons, a determination all the odder because Barry has never flown.

We gather that Barry's sisters have long made a habit of trying to fix him up with their friends, all the while undermining his confidence with a running dialogue in his hearing about his myriad shortcomings. To his face he is routinely addressed as "gayboy," and confronted with relentless criticism about his looks and sneering insinuations about his hygiene. What's surprising is that Barry functions as well as he does. What's not surprising is that he's an abject failure with women.

What's also not surprising is that in his loneliness and ineptitude, Barry finally resorts to contacting a phone-sex service. And thereby begins a plot. The phone-sex company is an extortion outfit run by a sleazoid furniture dealer named Dean Trumbell (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who is soon trying to blackmail Barry. Meanwhile, one of Barry's sisters finally succeeds in introducing him to a woman who seems to like him back. Lena Leonard (Emily Watson) is a jet-setting business woman who finds Barry's shyness adorable. Now if Barry can just survive the blackmailer's strong-arm tactics, and if he can buy an adequate amount of pudding for the free tickets to follow his new girl on her journeys, maybe Barry and Lena can live happily ever after.

Punch-Drunk Love employs some of the robust quirkiness of Anderson's earlier films. A car speeds down an urban street, somersaults into a dizzying crash and disappears from the picture without a trace. A cab screeches to a halt at the driveway to Barry's business and deposits a harmonium, a small red keyboard organ. Who does this or why, we never learn. A determined critic might find metaphors for these developments about the mysteries of life in general and love in particular. But only the critical contortionist could make any narrative sense of these events. Still, some of us like quirkiness for its refreshing difference alone.

Anderson's fans will also find his humor in fine form. Sight gags populate the edges of scene after scene. And Anderson's script milks the absurd details of Barry's life for sundry laughs. Just as Barry can't have a spot on his suit jacket without his sisters accusing him of failing to use dandruff shampoo, he can't buy a few boxes of pudding without everybody and her girlfriend taking notice. Much mirth is made of Barry's habitual and pathetic lying. Like the small child proclaiming ignorance about the writing on the walls of his room, Barry will inevitably stammer denials in the midst of overwhelming evidence of guilt.

Barry's desperate efforts to separate himself from his own actions are funny and at once oddly endearing. In service of the latter, Anderson has gotten Sandler to play straight, to really and thoroughly become Barry and not fall back on his own jaded smart-ass comic persona. We knew Sandler could carry a film, but heretofore only The Wedding Singer had hinted at the proposition he could act.

In dramatic contrast, Anderson has the benefit of Emily Watson in his cast and wastefully misuses her. Already twice nominated for a best-actress Oscar, Watson can definitely act, but Anderson has barely given her a character to play. And therein lie the seeds of my relative disappointment with Punch-Drunk Love. I regret that the current film is so slight. Boogie Nights was about community, Magnolia about faith and redemption, whereas Punch-Drunk Love is not very ambitiously about much of anything. Meanwhile, purely in narrative terms, we keep waiting for a twist involving Lena that never comes. She's ultimately so white-bread she's not really worthy of Barry's jalapeno pumpernickel. As mate material, Lena seems just a starter wife.

click to enlarge Where are the training wheels? Lena (Emily Watson) draws out the romance inside Barry (Adam Sandler) in Punch-Drunk Love.
  • Where are the training wheels? Lena (Emily Watson) draws out the romance inside Barry (Adam Sandler) in Punch-Drunk Love.
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