Paul Thomas Anderson is modern American film’s biggest show-off, and Adam Sandler is our most successful class clown. Their collaboration on Punch-Drunk Love is only an odd match at first glance. If you check the labels on their completely different suits of fame, these guys are cut from the same garish cloth.
Anderson, of course, is the Boogie Nights/Magnolia director who’s so ambitious and confident and self-consciously clever that you just want to smack him. In his last two movies, he seemed determined to do nothing less than capture the fear and alienation of the entire world, or at least the San Fernando Valley. His success in that mission is the topic of much discussion, but in this picture, Anderson has an entirely different grand scheme in mind.
He’s made a movie about one man: Barry Egan, a plunger salesman who’s been compressed into seething rage by seven overbearing sisters and a monotonous Valley existence. Anderson wrote the movie for Sandler; Barry is a revisionist take on Sandler’s lovable sociopath character that delights my generation of guys. Sandler, welcoming the chance to expand his range without stretching it to Truman Show lengths, reprises his usual combination of innocence and hostility with less irony and more tenderness. The result is uneven—and fascinating.
Barry is prone to violent rage and crying jags, but he hides them, even from himself. He has a good, strange job with plenty of co-workers who seem to like him, but he stays at home almost every night. He’s a good man, but he doesn’t know where to start with other people. Even if Anderson went nowhere with Barry, he’d be interesting enough to fill a movie.
Almost simultaneously, Barry’s life branches off in three directions. He happens upon a logic flaw in a Healthy Choice foods promotion that will allow him to collect a million frequent flyer miles for about $3,000 worth of pudding. He calls a phone sex line and gets wrapped up in an extortion plot masterminded by a guy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who runs a furniture store in Provo. And he meets Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), who takes an immediate and unaccountable shine to him.
As you might expect, Anderson indulges enough of his stylistic whims to make European audiences stain their Cahiers du Cinema (he won the Best Director award at Cannes), though much of it will almost assuredly leave mainstream American audiences cold and bored. One of the best occurs in the opening scenes when a piano is left in the street outside Barry’s anonymous warehouse. It’s one of those look-at-me symbolic gestures so loved by Anderson, who rained frogs on the Valley in his last movie, but it’s also a nod to the importance of Jon Brion’s soundtrack, which meshes harmonium music with violins and the voice of Shelly Duvall.
Music equals peace and romance—all the possibilities embodied by Lena. The mere idea of Emily Watson—with her lyrically off-kilter features and peppermint-patty-shaped eyes that seem to occupy two-thirds of her face—falling in love with anybody is an irresistible, intoxicating hook, even if it’s somebody as deliberately goofy and obviously unsuited for her as Adam Sandler. She should be kissed, and often, and by somebody who knows how—but failing that, she should at least be groped by Billy Madison.
In a world as deliberately whimsical as Anderson’s cinematic domain, you can’t get mad about the implausibilities in the script. The only explanation for Lena’s infatuation with Barry is the old one we use to explain half the couples we know: Who the hell knows what attracts people to each other? Anderson doesn’t make light of the power of love by pinning a reason on it.
And besides, there’s plenty of reason to love Barry. “I have so much strength in me, you have no idea,” Barry says in Utah during the climax, after he and Lena have reached an understanding that nobody else will understand. By then, we believe him.