Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest is one of the freshest American films of the year
Near the beginning of Punch-Drunk Love, Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) steps outside the back room of his place of business and sees a speeding van coming down the street in the pre-dawn light. In one shot, the van seems to spin out of control and crash, but in the next, it simply pulls up to the curb just long enough for a passenger to deposit a “piano” in the street.
The crash, it seems, did not actually happen, except in Barry’s mind, and then only because the speed and noise of the vehicle led that jittery mind of his to anticipate a violent accident. But the abandoned piano (a harmonium, actually), while real enough that Barry brings it in from the street, is also faintly disquieting—both gratuitous and surreal—and Barry, after some trepidation, embraces it as if it were a talisman of some sort.
These peculiarities in the opening moments—false impressions, neurotic over-reactions, exaggerated behavior—signal the uniqueness and special poetry of the new Paul Thomas Anderson movie. And it’s the first of the signs that this is also not an “Adam Sandler movie” in the usual sense of the term. It’s his most substantial role to date, but it bends aspects of his comic persona to extremes that may perplex his fans.
But even admirers of Anderson’s previous hits, Boogie Nights and Magnolia, may be a little perplexed by the weird interplay of extravagance and platitude in this oddly inspiring film. After all, what Anderson is serving up here is a piquant and almost daunting hybrid of love story, psychodrama, slapstick farce and aborted revenge tragedy. And the thing toys relentlessly with our sense of the credible.
Sandler’s Barry Egan is an almost pathologically geeky businessman, a coupon-clipping bachelor whose tics and evasions seem to forecast imminent psychological breakdown. His sudden and seemingly unlikely romance with one of his sister’s friends (Emily Watson) seems both absurd and perfectly convincing, as does his unorthodox way of handling the extortion threat that arises from his clumsy involvement in a phone-sex scam.
It’s hard to believe that Sandler/Egan could attract his sister’s witty friend (Watson) or that he could face down the extortionist (Anderson regular Philip Seymour Hoffman), but Anderson uses the hallucinatory idiom of Barry’s early moments in the film to set up the distinct possibility that we are seeing the action from Barry’s own panicky and overcompensating perspective. Could it be that his clumsiness and her serenity tell us more about Barry’s mindsets than they do about what either of them is “really” like?
In any event, Punch-Drunk Love keeps us guessing, even as it unfolds as an unmistakably offbeat romantic comedy, or as screwball comedy updated for the Age of Sandler. It may be slight in comparison with Anderson’s previous films, but it has enough freshness and originality to rate as one of the most striking American films of the year.