Punch-Drunk Love

In Punch-Drunk Love, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) uses Adam Sandler as a sort of found object of pathos and hostility. As Barry Egan, a sad sack running a threadbare California business, Sandler shrinks from people like an amoeba recoiling from a drop of cold water. Barry is also given to apocalyptic bursts of rage, which we can trace back to his seven sisters and their cavalierly sadistic, meant-to-be-loving treatment of him. The movie is devoted to Barry’s mercurial moods — yearning and loathing combined in a passive-aggressive ball — and some of the result is dazzling, and alive in a way few other movies are. Yet for all that, I couldn’t wait for it to be over.

Anderson’s 188-minute Magnolia tested the patience (and bladders) of many who endured it; this time, the eager young maestro set himself a 97-minute ceiling. But it’s clear by now that whatever characterization skill Anderson showed in his lean, mean debut, 1997’s Hard Eight, was a fluke. Barry is no more or less than his resentment and need — the latter underscored by Anderson’s frequent use of “He Needs Me,” sung by Shelley Duvall’s Olive Oyl in Robert Altman’s Popeye. Okay, we get it: if Hard Eight was Anderson’s riff on Altman’s California Split, Boogie Nights was his Nashville, and Magnolia was his Short Cuts, then Punch-Drunk Love — with its lunkheaded hero and his tremulous lady love, familial tension, and obsession with a food product (in Barry’s case, pudding he buys by the gross to get frequent-flyer miles) — must be Anderson’s Popeye. Would this filmmaker have anything to say had Robert Altman never been born?

Barry falls in love with Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), who does some sort of work alongside one of Barry’s meddling sisters, and who wanted to meet him based on having seen a family photo of him with his dread siblings. What does she see in him? He offers nothing except need. But need isn’t love, or vice versa, and the desire to be needed is also not love. There is no evidence that these two specific people belong together, and Emily Watson, in the latest in a string of drastically underwritten roles, isn’t given the material to make us see why Barry would be special to her. We understand why she’s special to him — she’s attractive, and shows attraction towards him — but this match seems awfully one-sided. There isn’t even a scene in which Lena is charmed by one of Barry’s personality quirks.

As usual, Anderson shovels in details he thinks are cool, whether or not they belong in the movie. A subplot in which Barry gets ripped off by a phone-sex operator is exceedingly tiresome, though it gives Anderson a reason to put Philip Seymour Hoffman (as the scuzzy boss behind the phone-sex scam operation — the film’s Bluto, if you will) in the film, and it activates Barry’s rage gratifyingly a couple of times. It should be said that the half-serious Oscar buzz surrounding Sandler at the time shouldn’t even have been half-serious; he does nothing here he hasn’t done before, even in his quiet, somber moments when he lets his voice go limp and passive. He gave a more fully-rounded performance in The Wedding Singer, where he not only had a basic, solid script to work from but better dialogue and room to be funny. Then again, The Wedding Singer wasn’t directed by Paul Thomas Anderson the Critics’ Darling.

Anderson has said he wanted to make an Adam Sandler movie, but Punch-Drunk Love is no more an Adam Sandler movie than The Spanish Prisoner — which used its journeyman comedian to similar dissonant effect — was a Steve Martin movie. It is, as the ads say, “a P.T. Anderson Picture.” As always, Anderson does things no one else is doing (that’s not to say no one else has ever done them), and his ardor and enthusiasm keep you watching. But what he puts onscreen is increasingly unengaging. Anderson is obviously in punch-drunk love with making movies; he has also just as obviously forgotten — other than for his own pleasure — why, exactly, he makes them.

Explore posts in the same categories: overrated, romance

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