Punch Drunk Love

November, 2002, Drama

Directed by:Paul Thomas Anderson

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

Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) once again creates very detailed examinations of a specific breed of homo sapiens; contemporary Southern Californians and their anthropological cousins, the occupiers of western urban cities where nature never intended them to be located, like Las Vegas and Provo Utah. His screenplays introduce audiences to a legion of wounded souls, struggling to decipher the worlds in which they live, but doing so with a sad gracefulness. That requires special actors to work with this magician of the camera and written word. The results, when he gets them right, are eerily magical; you realize you're in the presence of characters that aren't like any you've ever encountered before. The accuracy with which they're portrayed overwhelms the distance you want to keep from them, because while they harbor so much inner conflict and exhibit it in such profane and often violent ways, they also seem to resemble what we really might be like too, just under the surfaces of our everyday lives. Anderson sustained that mood perfectly in Boogie Nights but lost his touch in the cumulative effect of the intersecting story lines in Magnolia; it's nice to report this latest effort brings his brilliant strengths back to fine form.

I don't know if Anderson consciously sought to recreate The Little Tramp character in a contemporary setting, but he's managed to do so with a surprisingly deft performance from Adam Sandler, whose most ardent fans would never accuse of subtlety. Sandler plays Brian, a struggling San Fernando Valley businessman who's so nerdy his sisters, (7 of them) affectionately call him "gay boy" and then interrogate him about whether it's an accurate reflection of his sexual orientation. Brian and his partner, (played with a delicious sense of impending doom by the wonderful character Luis Guzman) operate a company that produces and markets a line of curiously adorned bathroom plungers. They operate out of a cavernous warehouse that’s both nondescript and vaguely ominous. 

As in any good physical comedy, their work has to be performed with total sense of serious purpose, and here it's carried out between the pestering phone calls from Sandler's siblings. These telephonic interruptions capture the mad spirit of Chaplin's famous scene in "City Lights" when the hero’s undone by the precise timing of an assembly line. Here, that sense of destructive distraction is paired with the precisely the kind of condescending concern only older sisters can provide. Anderson thus pays homage to the master while bringing a fresh, double meaning to the material.

Not surprisingly, Brian's shyness, coupled with an almost painful lack of social grace, leads him to try anonymous phone sex, which he quickly discovers isn't as confidential as he'd been led to believe. He then becomes the victim of a shake-down perpetrated by a scabrous con man portrayed with profane glee by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Brian's reputation, bankroll and personality make him an obvious choice for this ham-handed con and his life appears to teeter on the brink of disaster when true love enters the picture in the delicious form of Emily Watson, co-worker to one of Brian's small army of sisters. 

Is there a more charming leading lady on the screen today than Watson? She brings the same wide-eyed innocence to this part that audiences first saw in Breaking The Waves and she accompanies it with that joyous sense of sexuality which plays across her face and dances in her mischievous eyes. She's a divorcee, who travels extensively in her job, and while her captivation with Sandler's Brian seems improbable, it's no less so than many other aspects of this deliberately idiosyncratic movie. 

Anderson's real genius may lie in the very mysterious way he introduces the inexplicable into the commonplace, holding both in wonderful balance. The film opens with Brian's dreamy observation of a wide city street somewhere in the Valley's seemingly endless commercial byways; a car approaches on this deserted strip of asphalt only to explode in an instant of violent action that's never referred to again. Minutes later, a nondescript truck delivers an old musical instrument to the mouth of the same alley Brian's standing in and it becomes a visual motif which returns again and again as a charming visual marker of the hero's possible delivery from a life of frustrating, dangerous, hermetically-sealed self-absorption. Large acquisitions of Healthy Choice pudding invade the plot, suggesting an importance in the developing action; but their significance evolves into an elaborate comic set-up. 

As Brian, Sandler has the chance to elicit fond memories of early silent film nebbishes like Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, and he even performs a Chaplinesque dance in a supermarket aisle. I've never been a Sandler fan; his form of broad, physical humor focuses too relentlessly on the juvenile, Beavis and Butthead audience. But the actor pulls off quite an impressive job here as the sad, socially inept protagonist; he remains ever the beleaguered schlemiel, but with an undercurrent of sweetness that barely conceals the potentially violent temper which forms the center of the actor's standard screen persona. Sandler manages this tension by making Brian a truly sympathetic man who realizes all too painfully that his hopes and dreams may well dissolve in his own ineptitude unless he can escape the prison of his loneliness. Watson's love, (like all examples of spiritual grace) is as capable of redeeming him as it is unearned and inexplicable. Brian knows it for what it is--a miracle, and we cheer his ultimately successful efforts to become the man he always wanted to be. When he explains that he's "found a true love" in the final confrontation with Hoffman, his screaming nemesis, we know Brian's gained the most fundamental survival skill of all; self-acceptance.

Anderson wraps this surprisingly sweet, loopy romance in his patented four letter word dialogue, but it consistently rings true; innocuous conversations turn profane in the most surprising but logical ways, and the rhythms of his verbal riffs play off each another with a fluidity that's matched by the director's trademark use of long, graceful tracking shots which convey an unaccustomed beauty to the most commonplace locations. Much of the subtext here grows out of an intense understanding of the migratory miracle that is the Valley; neither city nor suburb, but endless urban sprawl, the home of America's porno industry and thousands of anonymous commercial enterprises. One elegant shot tracks Sadler and Watson's departure from a restaurant, down the street, around the corner and across to his parked car; all the while, a giant Allied Van Lines semi in the street behind them suggests that small scale movements always takes place inside larger, more fundamental ones.

 In the midst of the cavernous interior spaces, monotone colors and bland commercial exteriors which frame the action, Anderson arbitrarily injects sequences comprised of abstract colored swirls, suggestive of the paintings of Morris Lewis. Rather than interrupting the flow of the story, these inexplicable juxtapositions invite our joyous participation in it, as if the director interrupts to assure us everything will be all right, even beautiful, at the end.

And it is. Here's a film which blends a stunning soundtrack with cinematography and harmonious performances into one of the most original movies of the year, and does so by reaching into the archives of the medium to bring a fresh interpretation to the long ignored genre of slapstick comedy. Hat's off to Mr. Anderson; he's made a film of commercial value and artistic singularity while challenging the audience's very conception of what a movie is supposed to be all about.        

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