After turning in the impressive, ambitious one-two punch of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson decided that it was time for a change of pace. When asked about what he was planning to do next, Anderson made two declarations: that he wanted to work with Adam Sandler (Happy Gilmore), and that he was determined to make his next movie 90 minutes long. Sure enough, Anderson's next feature was Punch-Drunk Love, which runs just a little over 90 minutes (if you include the lengthy end credits, anyway) but does indeed star Adam Sandler. Anderson has described the movie as an, “arthouse Adam Sandler film,” which is just about right. The director hasn't airlifted his star out of juvenile comedies and brought him into a traditional “prestige” picture, but rather has deconstructed typical Sandler movies and re-shaped the pieces into something absurdly funny and curiously beautiful.
Sandler plays Barry Egan, who owns a small business that specializes in selling novelty items in bulk (in one scene, we see him showcasing a series of themed toilet plungers). He lives alone, has seven sisters who constantly pester him and is currently obsessed with a project that involves redeeming coupons from Healthy Choice food boxes for airline miles (he doesn't have any real interest in traveling anywhere, but recognizes that the value of the airline miles he's getting is considerably greater than the cost of the food items he's purchasing).
Barry's life is a lonely, loveless one, but that changes after he meets Lena Leonard (Emily Watson, War Horse), who works with one of his sisters. That sister has been trying to set Lena up with Barry, but Barry's initial resistance to the idea (he doesn't really want to be with anyone his sister wants him to be with) fades as he actually gets to know Lena. To say that Barry's romantic overtures are ungainly would be an understatement – a less charitable partner might view him as an unhinged stalker – but Lena knows what he's getting at. Their most romantic exchange:
Barry: “I'm looking at your face and I just wanna smash it. I just wanna f---in' smash it with a sledgehammer and squeeze it. You're so pretty.”
Lena: “I want to chew on your face, and I want to scoop out your eyes and I want to eat them and chew them and suck on them.”
Barry: “Okay. This is funny. This is nice.”
Meanwhile, there's a considerably more stressful development for Barry to deal with. Before his romance with Lena began to blossom, his loneliness inspired him to make a call to a phone sex line. Unfortunately, the line is owned by a professional blackmailer (a wonderfully sleazy Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master) who uses all sorts of unsavory scare tactics to persuade his victims to pay up.
Often, when comedians decide to shake things up by taking a dramatic role, they surprise audiences by more or less abandoning the goofy mannerisms that usually accompany their comic roles (see many of the dramatic turns served up by Jim Carrey, Robin Williams, Steve Martin, etc.). However, Barry feels very much like one of Sandler's other characters: an awkward, mumbling, agitated man-child who fumbles his way through a contrived plot and an unlikely romance. The only difference in this case is that Anderson and Sandler are actually taking the character seriously, locating the desperation, sadness and anger lurking beneath the surface of other Sandler characters.
The film's tone is heavily informed by Barry's mental state, and Anderson uses an abundance of clever techniques to put us inside the head of his alternately tormented and lovestruck main character. Jon Brion's score is a brilliant piece of work, employing all sorts of unusual, intentionally irritating sounds – rings, buzzes, clicks and thumps – that occasionally get overtaken by gorgeous, swoon-inducing melodies (including snippets of “He Needs Me,” a number from Robert Altman's Popeye). Likewise, the imagery on display is mundane by default (warehouses and grocery stores bathed in cold fluorescent light), but occasionally gives way to sudden bursts of wondrous color: video art from Jeremy Blake bursts onto the screen, and Brion's music soars in a fit of romantic bliss.
Despite its blatant arthouse flourishes and somber observations, Punch-Drunk Love is very much a comedy, and often an exceptionally entertaining one. It's impossible not to laugh at the way Sandler runs in the most graceless manner possible whenever he begins to panic, or at the way Luis Guzman (Carlito's Way) – playing Barry's loyal employee – takes every bonkers thing Sandler does in stride. The conflict between Sandler and Hoffman also produces a lot of laughs: there are few things funnier than angry men who are incapable of seeing how ridiculous their anger makes them.
This is a deliberately slight film, particularly in contrast to most of Anderson's other work – it's almost hilarious to consider the way this odd, sweet little movie is sandwiched between Magnolia and There Will Be Blood – but it still feels significant. It's not the only good movie Sandler has made, but it's the only movie that persuasively presents Sandler as a singular talent. No one else could have played this part, because Anderson has tailored it to Sandler's screen presence with remarkable precision. Every actor should be lucky enough to work with a director that understands their abilities so thoroughly.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 95 minutes
Release Year: 2002