Friday, November 07, 2014

Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

USA, 95 minutes
Director/writer: Paul Thomas Anderson
Photography: Robert Elswit
Music: Jon Brion
Editor: Leslie Jones
Cast: Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Karen Kilgariff, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Luis Guzmán

After Boogie Nights (155 minutes) and Magnolia (188 minutes), director and writer Paul Thomas Anderson was showing some signs of a tendency toward bloat. Anderson wanted to make a shorter movie and for some reason he wanted to work with Adam Sandler, who was then within range of the peak of his box office powers. I'm willing to give Anderson the benefit of the doubt that it wasn't commercial appeal he was after. More likely something along the lines of what Martin Scorsese managed with Jerry Lewis in The King of Comedy: putting an overfamiliar (and frequently tiresome) comedy icon in an utterly new context, which at the same time is profoundly appropriate.

Sandler plays Barry Egan, a self-styled businessman barely eking out a living. At the time of the movie he is operating out of office space in a warehouse somewhere in industrial Los Angeles, attempting to sell novelty products as some kind of B2B (business-to-business) enterprise evidently aimed at trade shows and/or Las Vegas casinos. He wears a ridiculous blue suit that many people ask him about but he never explains. On the side, he is at work on other schemes. They are all a little ridiculous. He has seven sisters who harass and belittle him, and a bad case of rage. A really bad case of rage. In case you were wondering, Punch-Drunk Love is a love story—and a wonderful one.

But very strange. Sandler's rage is only incidentally explained—frustrations with his sisters and more generally an inability to connect and fit in with others. Mostly it appears to be just an element of his personality and mostly it's played as comedy, with broadly exaggerated eruptions in which he destroys large windows, public bathrooms, attacks and beats people, etc., with an ominous threat back of that that he will suddenly break down into fits of weeping. Full disclosure: I have not seen many Adam Sandler movies and know him only by general reputation. The basic persona puts me off. (And I know this is a much darker version of the usual.) But his comic instincts here are undeniable—not only is he good at pulling laughs out of these scenes and situations, he's even better at modulating that into the image of a stalking lunatic who's barely in control of himself at all. It's much more often a much more frightening and worrisome movie than it is funny.

Lena Leonard, his love interest, is played by Emily Watson, who is sneaky-good and completely winning too. Anderson's screenplay is great at developing these characters but I think this is also one of Watson's best performances, and not an easy one. Lena is a coworker of one of Barry's sisters, Elizabeth (Mary Lynn Rajskub, better known as Chloe from 24). Elizabeth wants to set them up, which is fine with Lena because she has been interested in Barry ever since she saw his picture in a family portrait with his sisters. But Elizabeth has not been able to engineer getting them together, as Barry resists everything his sisters want, so one of the first scenes we see, before we even know who she is, is Lena taking the situation into her own hands to make a seemingly random introduction.

Another subplot involves a call that Barry makes to a phone sex line that goes badly wrong, as the woman on the other end decides she wants more money from him and attempts to blackmail him. Her boss (Philip Seymour Hoffman, predictably brilliant in a small role) sends four brothers to Los Angeles from his base in a mattress store in Utah to threaten and extort Barry. Is there a bible story about seven sisters and four brothers? With Anderson, one wonders.

Lena, meanwhile, travels a lot for her work. She and Barry have a troubled but generally successful first date but soon after she has to go to Hawaii for her job. Barry follows her, and at about this point—actually, at the end of their first date—the movie quite unexpectedly begins to go remarkable places as a romantic comedy. You find yourself absolutely rooting for this love affair to work, in spite of all misgivings about Barry, which are gnawing and never go away entirely.

In Hawaii, of all places, it shamelessly turns just beautiful, again in spite of everything. As Barry puts it, as he and Lena sit quietly at an outdoor patio with a view of the ocean and sunset over drinks and dinner, "It really looks like Hawaii here." Revelations about Lena come that make her seem a good match for Barry—personality flaws, in other words. But they only serve to make the match seem more inevitable, and right, in some irrational and deeply felt way. It is a movie about love, signaled indeed by use of the word "love" in the title, and it is convincing, touching, and heartening.

Of course, as a Paul Thomas Anderson exercise, Punch-Drunk Love remains open to any number of charges of excess. Jon Brion's soundtrack, for example, is too often merely pretentious, distracting and alienating. And I still don't much care for Adam Sandler—in fact, I suspect not liking him is part of what makes the movie work. And no, I'm not comfortable either with the admixture of casual mental derangement and comedy. But keeping it short may have been a worthwhile goal for Anderson as ultimately it is its brevity that saves it, I think. It brims with creative energy, it goes to numerous jaw-dropping crazy places, it grounds itself in love start to finish, and it's over, leaving a good taste. It's a good one—maybe even my favorite Anderson, after only Boogie Nights.

No comments:

Post a Comment