PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON'S PECULIAR tour de force Punch-Drunk Love, perhaps the most assaultive romantic comedy in Hollywood history, begins shortly before dawn in a bleak industrial stretch of the San Fernando Valley. Clad in a bright-blue suit worthy of the Technicolor Jerry Lewis, Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) is alone in his harshly lit warehouse office. Hanging up the phone, Barry gingerly makes his way outside, carefully walks down to the street and watches passing traffic. Suddenly -- and for no apparent reason -- the world cartwheels out of control right in front of him. Before we've fully registered what's happened, all is calm again, and Barry is just standing there agape. We're agape, too, for this bravura opening scene not only plunges us into its hero's dizzying world but (we soon grasp) captures the essence of this taut 97-minute movie -- its free-floating unease, jarring bursts of violence and miraculous intimations of sweet music.
Barry, we learn, is a small-business man and sad-sack loner whose natural anxiety and diffidence have been amplified by seven constantly phoning sisters who teasingly call him "gayboy," betray his every confidence and affectionately mock his infantile lisp. Afraid to tell anyone what he's really feeling, especially face-to-face, Barry clings to superficial relationships, devoting much of his energy to the telephone ("Yes, I'm still on hold" are his opening words). But beneath his shy amiability he's so emotionally bottled up that he sometimes just explodes -- slugging walls, smashing patio doors, trashing restaurant toilets. Barry seems doomed to loneliness until salvation appears in the form of Lena Leonard, a divorcée herself so cracked that she's played by Emily Watson. Once she sets her pinwheel eyes on Barry, she's hooked, and the rest of the movie's a matter of him finally getting off Hold and learning to play the harmonium. He must conquer his inner turmoil so he can accept Lena's love, a complicated process that involves escaping the clutches of phone-sex hoodlums and scheming to win a million frequent-flier miles by buying $3,000 worth of product-placement pudding.
When it first came out that Anderson was creating a project for Sandler, I wondered if he was engaging in directorial vainglory -- you know, a sow's-ear-into-silk-purse kind of stunt. Like most people over 16, I'm baffled by Sandler's superstardom (after all, it's not like he's Vin Diesel) and bugged by his mannerisms -- all that baby talk, mugging and snickering at his own jokes. But Anderson has the knack of sounding out unexpected resonances in well-known actors (Gwyneth Paltrow, Burt Reynolds, Tom Cruise), and he gives us Sandler as we've never before seen him: hunched, crunched and muttering; soft-faced, big-pored, flushed with rage. Normally, when Sandler uses obscenity, he's just being cute. Here, his neck veins seem about to burst.
While it would be stretching it to say that Sandler gives a great performance, he brings Barry alive with a shtick-free, often soulful piece of acting that expands and deepens our sense of his persona (as, say, Clint Eastwood did with his own tough-guy character). Punch-Drunk Love obeys the archetypal structure of a Sandler comedy, in which an apparent loser triumphs over all obstacles ("You can do eet!") and winds up snagging the sexy blond (most recently, Mr. Deeds' bewigged Winona Ryder). Yet Anderson has an appetite for extremes -- remember Magnolia's ensemble hysterics and rain of frogs? -- and he pushes this formula almost to the breaking point. Amping up the opposed sides of Sandler's screen image, the adolescent troublemaker and the love-struck sweetie, he lays bare the anger, terror, yearning and loneliness hidden beneath his trademark gleeful mayhem and romantic goofiness. It's a daring thing to do, for Sandler's fans are unlikely to enjoy seeing their hero in this hard-edged new light, and one can only admire the heroic perversity (and box-office madness) of making a rigorously poetic art film starring the king of slobby teen comedy. (I eagerly await the contrarian piece insisting that The Wedding Singer was actually much, much better.)
Although shot through with realism -- in the world of P.T. Anderson, guys like Barry wind up with hollow-eyed divorcées, not Drew Barrymore -- Punch-Drunk Love comes off as a fractured millennial riff on the old-fashioned MGM musical. Jon Brion's score oscillates between head-splitting percussion and demented Parisian-romantic; Barry and Lena are color-coded blue and red (we know he's a changed man when he dons a red tie); Barry's greatest moment of exuberance comes while doing a supermarket soft-shoe; and his love comes alive to the suitably loony strains of Lena's theme, "He Needs Me," as sung by Shelley Duvall's Olive Oyl in Popeye. (As always, Anderson's overall sound design is impeccable.)
But Anderson also intends to get under your skin, and one of the movie's triumphs is its skill at externalizing Barry's worries by making the outside world seem cruelly intrusive. Valley sunlight shines bright as a nuclear blast. Cars and forklifts crash with unsettling randomness. For the first few minutes you may think the sound has been mixed incorrectly because the whole world's so damned loud -- motors, footsteps, rattling pipes, everything. No wonder Barry's a jangle of nerves. In fact, the first two-thirds of the movie provoke the same paranoid jitters as Boogie Nights' scene with drug-dealer Alfred Molina, whose Chinese rent-boy keeps setting off firecrackers.
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