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.
This assaultiveness recedes as Barry begins to break free from his anxiety, and — as in all of Anderson's work — the action slowly moves toward a plateau of calm acceptance. For all their surface darkness, his movies are shot through with a fierce, distinctively male romanticism; they're all about outcasts and loners seeking shelter, ersatz families, someone to watch over them. He clearly believes, or wants to believe, that the right woman is waiting for even the dorkiest guy. Here, Barry and Lena actually find each other and are rewarded with a glamorous silhouetted kiss against the backdrop of Waikiki Beach, beautifully captured, like the whole film, by Robert Elswit's exquisite wide-screen photography. While their story is not nearly as emotionally juicy as Anderson's other two pictures set in the 818 area code (Lena is more wish-fulfillment than full-blooded character), the movie winds up being his sunniest, for Anderson takes care to keep their love sweet, daffy and punch-drunk. This is a film in which that modern obsession, frequent-flier mileage, becomes proof of fidelity, and true intimacy is portrayed by a man telling his lover, “I'm sorry I beat up the bathroom.” For Barry, love is ultimately less about giddiness than it is about finding relief.
ONE OF THE MOSQUITO-BITE IRRITAtions of being on the left is finding your ideals represented in public by Michael Moore, whose ball cap, burgeoning belly and self-promoting populism have made him an international brand name. When his documentary Bowling for Columbine played at Cannes this May, it was received with wild enthusiasm — predictably so, for it seems to have been made to delight European intellectuals and anyone else who believes that America is a land of bloodthirsty yet comical barbarians.
Opening with a campy clip from an old NRA promo film, Bowling for Columbine purports to be Moore's personal quest for the meaning of American gun violence, an investigation that in fact finds him shambling around Colorado, Canada, L.A. and his old hometown of Flint, Michigan (he's a Manhattan boy now), and prompts him to interview everyone from Marilyn Manson to Michigan militiamen, to Kmart flacks, to one of the producers of Cops. Moore remains a gifted provocateur with a keen sense of absurdity as he demonstrates in the movie's funniest sequences — like the one when he gets a free gun from a bank by signing up for a CD. Although he'd have made a crackerjack ad man, he's a slipshod filmmaker, and the movie quickly collapses, burying its subject beneath bumper-sticker rehashes of received ideas: the demonizing of black men, fear-mongering TV news, Canada's progressive health-care system and the Bush administration's partisan use of scare tactics. At once punchy and incoherent — Moore contradicts himself vividly every few minutes — the film has the scattershot shapelessness of a concept album made by a singles band.
Although Moore takes delight in thumping Cops and TV newscasts, he himself uses tabloid techniques and is guilty of manipulative heartlessness: When a school principal breaks into tears, Moore sensitively puts his arm around her but keeps the camera running. Like jesting Pilate, he's so busy zooting around to keep things “entertaining” that he doesn't bother to examine any of his topics. Indeed, his idea of social analysis is to play Louis Armstrong's “What a Wonderful World” over footage of countries where the U.S. government has made war or toppled governments — Iran, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, etc. — then end his montage with shots of the planes hitting the World Trade Center. Moore doubtless believes this a trenchant political statement and that anyone who disagrees is naive, duplicitous or reactionary. In fact, what stinks about this montage isn't its suggestion that much U.S. policy has been reprehensible (it obviously has) or that such behavior is one part of the context that has triggered anti-American terrorism (ditto). The problem is the lazy historical thinking worthy of Rush Limbaugh. Does Moore really think that Osama bin Laden ever gave a damn what happened to Salvadoran campesinos? Does he really think U.S. foreign policy caused those two high school kids to gun down their schoolmates? Moore never says, but he does emphasize, that on the same day as Columbine, U.S. bombers dropped an especially heavy payload on Kosovo. So what? Absent any serious historical analysis, his implication seems to be that this country is incorrigibly murderous. You don't know whether to be outraged or yawn.
Near the end, Moore takes a bead on NRA president Charlton Heston. Flashing his membership card (Moore never discusses his own feelings about guns), he visits the actor's Beverly Hills mansion and asks Moses why he thinks there's so much gun violence in America. Heston ventures a couple of answers, but Moore isn't satisfied and keeps hectoring him until the aging Heston slowly walks off. Moore chases after him and confronts him with the photo of a 6-year-old girl who'd recently been shot in Flint. Moments later, as Moore walks down Heston's driveway, head solemnly lowered, we're obviously supposed to think him the dead girl's champion and voice — the ball-capped, potbellied, popular representative of ordinary folks. Me, I kept thinking how dishonest Moore had been to badger a gaga old fool for failing to explain why so many Americans shoot one another when his own movie was so transparently failing to answer the same question.
PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE | Written and directed by PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON | Produced by JOANNE SELLAR, DANIEL LUPI and ANDERSON | Released by Columbia Pictures | At Pacific's The Grove Stadium 14, AMC Santa Monica 7
BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE | Written and directed by MICHAEL MOORE | Produced by CHARLES BISHOP, JIM CZARNECKI, KATHLEEN GLYNN and MOORE | Released by United Artists | At Landmark Regent, Laemmle's Sunset 5, Laemmle's Town Center 5, Landmark's Rialto, Edwards University