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Punch-Drunk Love

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Punch-Drunk Love

Starring: Adam Sandler, Emily Watson
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Rated: R
RunTime: 105 Minutes
Release Date: October 2002
Genres: Comedy, Romance

*Also starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Luis Guzman, Mary Lynn Rajskub

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Review by Harvey Karten
3½ stars out of 4

Comedy shows people worse than they really are and tragedy shows us better than we are. While comedy is difficult (ask anyone who's had to perform before a silent audience at Caroline's Comedy Corner), serious roles require depth. We don't wonder that actors known as comedians want to break out, to diversify, to show their many dimensions. Robin Williams did so beautifully in "One Hour Photo" while Steve Martin turned in a dandy performance in "The Spanish Prisoner." But Adam Sandler? Could America's favorite movie clown, an expert at pratfalls and "duh" expressions actually show a greater depth if he restrained himself and stopped performing strictly for the MTV crowd? While he'll probably never do "Othello" or "Macbeth," he goes half-way toward seriousness in a performance of unusual breadth. What is so unusual about his role in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Punch- Drunk Love" is that many in the audience could actually identify with him. (What fan of his could truly relate his own life to that of the waterboy?) By contrast, Paul Thomas Anderson, who knocked out perhaps the most serious, heaviest movie of 1999 with "Magnolia"-- a mosaic of misery with characters including a dying man, an angelic male nurse, and concepts like anger, guilt, isolation, the sins of fathers and a rainstorm of frogs on a biblical level must have decided to take a vacation, to see how he could handle the light touch.

Sandler inhabits the role of Barry Egan, who has recently started a business in toilet plungers, having invented one with an unbreakable handle. He employs a handful of people who probably talk behind his back about what a loser their boss is, but Lance (Luis Guzman) would never show his disdain when in his employer's presence. Barry may be a loser but is the sort of loser that some women would like to take home, possibly to mother, maybe even to love. He's not threatening to them, he's obviously not a womanizes, he's safe to be with, and he's kinda cute. He doesn't know how to act around women, perhaps because his seven sisters abuse him mercilessly, calling him gay boy while at the same time one of them tries to fix him up with a cutie who works with her, Lena Leonard (Emily Watson).

During the course of the movie, Barry gets into deep doggie-doo after giving his credit card, phone number, address and social security i.d. to a crooked phone-sex operation, one that employs four gangsters led by the over-the-top Dean Trumbell (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to embezzle and otherwise separate Barry from his hard-earned cash. The whole yarn was motivated by the story of a real-life person who beat the system by investing just $3000 in Health Choice pudding which enabled him to parlay enough coupons to get him 1.5 million frequent flyer miles. Among Mr. Anderson's quirky scenes are a huge stack of the pudding lined up in Barry's warehouse; a surreal introduction with such fire power that nothing else matches it throughout the film; the bold use of color and especially a to-die-for sound track that complements the action including "Waikiki," "Moana Chimes," and especially Harry Nilsson's "He Needs Me" which best describes the feeling that Lena, the shy and adorable British woman, feels about her new lover.

What do women want? According to this, they do not want an overly confident man who will lead them around, who knows how to put his elbow on a bar and how to tip the maitre-d' without seeming obvious. They want a klutzy fella, one who will not take liberties with them on the first date or even after meeting them in Hawaii for Barry merely extends his hand to shake that of Lena when they approach each other in Oahu, leading to the signature kiss.

There's little question that the New York Film Festival chose this to be one of its only three American choices partly because it highlights Mr. Sandler in a far more restrained comic role than he has ever attempted before, perhaps even more because of Anderson's artsy, but not pretentious, style. There are long takes, as when Barry and Lena simply face each other and when Barry faces off, nose to nose, with his archenemy, the crooked Dean Trumbull. Some of the fun requires audience attention because the action often takes part in the background, as when Lance tests a couple of unbreakable toilet plungers while Barry is in the office tending to phone calls. Photographer Robert Elswit's use of bright colors is not unlike that of Todd Haynes in his striking new film, "Far from Heaven," a glorification of the 1950's studio-lot melodramas that starred the likes of Lana Turner, Agnes Moorehead and Fred MacMurray.

As in the more conventional romantic comedies, Anderson keeps the lovers apart for most of the story, separated not by Lena's hesitation but by Barry's refusal to believe that anyone could fall for him. The violence is unlike anything you'd expect from a character played by Sandler, but at the same time, when he trashes the bathroom in a restaurant and slams his fist repeatedly into the wall of his office and in one case curses himself under his breath over and over, we understand that he is filled with self-loathing for being such a loser.

I'd not go so far as to say that Sandler's usual public hungers to see him in a role like this. "Punch-Drunk Love," with its long tracking shots, its occasional stoppage of forward motion, its surreal imagery, will not go over big with the MTV-ers but mature, intelligent film buffs will eat it up. Or enough of them will.

Copyright 2002 Harvey Karten

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