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Punch-Drunk Love   A

Columbia Pictures

Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Writers: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Luis Guzman, Mary Lynn Rajskub.

Review by Rob Vaux

In the otherwise dismal career of Adam Sandler, one moment always stands out for me. His character from The Wedding Singer, having just lost the woman he loves, vents his heartbreak on the unsuspecting reception he's playing. The sweet boy facade drops away, leaving a seething cauldron of jealousy and resentment. When they try to shuffle him away from the revelers, he lashes back with fearsome (and very funny) rage. "I have the microphone, so YOU WILL LISTEN TO EVERY DAMN WORD I HAVE TO SAY!" It's one of the only times I've laughed at his films, and one of the only real instants of truth in his so-called humor.

Punch-Drunk Love finds the potential of that moment, and pulls it out into an entire movie -- an angry, raw, shockingly beautiful romantic comedy that tests the limits of our every expectation. Director Paul Thomas Anderson, who helmed two of the most original films of the last five years, has fashioned a nearly flawless hat trick: a unique treatise on love and anguish centered on a truly unlikely star.

Sandler plays Barry Egan, a sensitive soul whom the world has driven to the brink of psychosis. Tormented by his seven harpy sisters, treated as a joke by his business associates, he radiates the aura of a beaten puppy. He finds his trust violated on a regular basis, from a fumbling consultation with his brother-in-law to a phone-sex call that escalates into a sleazy shakedown. Against these blows he is almost defenseless, compulsively lying in a vain effort to escape the torture. But his meekness hides an angry streak, pent-up hostility that emerges in random and seemingly pointless ways. "Sometimes I don't like myself very much," he confesses after smashing a set of sliding glass doors. Then, in one of those spontaneous twists of fate that Anderson loves, Barry meets a woman, Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), who instantly takes to him. The joy of new romance puts Barry's miseries in stark relief, and he finds himself redirecting his anger in more purposeful directions.

Herein lies Punch-Drunk Love's strength. Lena's appearance serves as a balm to Barry -- a wondrous spark in his empty life -- but it also feeds his rage. Now that he has something to fight for, he's ready to come out swinging. Literally. The film understands that love and anger are both equally brutal emotions, springing from the same source and often serving to prop each other up. So it is with Barry. Anderson orchestrates Barry's slow emergence from doormat-dom with the skill of a master surgeon, mixing vicious humor with heartfelt emotion and that heady sort of love that only truly desperate characters can generate. In so doing, he pushes against our notions of what a romantic comedy should be. Punch-Drunk Love demonstrates an unusual understanding of strong feelings, interlacing sharp jabs with the laughter. Real romance has as much to do with trust and respect as moony stares and grand gestures, a fact that this film embodies without losing its idealistic charm. We sympathize with Barry's pain, rather than shy away from it, and that sympathy makes the romance feel all the more magical. It shines with dippy exuberance, but also blends with the razor-blade slashes of a life on the edge of despair. The result is as raw and open as it is powerful.

People are referring to this as Adam Sandler's Truman Show, but that's being dismissive. Sandler doesn't really do anything here he hasn't done before; he simply has a brilliant vehicle to help him along. Barry's pain lies hidden, but we can sense it in Sandler's tics and gestures. Similarly, he brings a remarkably sure touch Barry's joy -- his time with Lena, a strange scheme to trade in pudding for free airline miles. We feel his happiness because we know that he's earned it, and Sandler handles his brief, spontaneous gestures of optimism as deftly as his rage. I never thought I'd use words like "Chaplin-esque" in reference to the guy who gave us Opera Man, but moments in Punch-Drunk Love approach that kind of magical whimsy. Credit should also go to Watson, who plays Lena with a subtle longing that perfectly complements Barry's anxiety. In other movies, this couple would scream dysfunction; here, they become oddly fitting soulmates, sliding easily into each other's lives with nary a second glance. Philip Seymour Hoffman does a fine job as well, filling the other end of the emotional scale as the phone-sex thug who crosses swords with Barry.

In many ways Punch-Drunk Love could have been part of Anderson's ensemble drama Magnolia, as the characters here come together and pull away with that film's quirky rhythm. But Magnolia strayed far and wide, while this effort brings the same energy to a much more self-contained endeavor. At just under 89 minutes, it's remarkably light on its feet, despite the frantic tone it often takes. As a romantic comedy, it obeys none of the traditional edicts of the genre; as a character study, it brings delirious depth to its subject; and as an Adam Sandler movie, it shows more intelligence and snap than we could have ever imagined. Punch-Drunk Love is easily one of the best films of the year, an open mouth kiss delivered with the ferocity of a street brawl.

Review published 10.21.2002.

* * *

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