Punch-Drunk Love is an audacious high-wire act masquerading as a romantic comedy, and the first movie all year that captures the magic of great Hollywood films, the giddy balance of screw-loose inspiration and comforting convention that has always marked the best, and the most accessible, classics.
Director Paul Thomas Anderson, the wunderkind filmmaker behind Boogie Nights and Magnolia, delivers that unmistakable, all-too-rare sensation of levitating as you sit there in your seat, of being overwhelmed and enraptured, and maybe pleasantly dazed, with a swirl of color and razzle-dazzle and guts and emotion.
The film is nothing less than 95 too-brief minutes of dizzying, palpable movie love; it is also nothing you would ever expect from either Anderson or its star, Adam Sandler. Yes, Adam Sandler. We'll get to his brave ache of a performance in a minute. (Yes, “brave ache of a performance.” Let's move on.)
Punch-Drunk Love is a title made literal, sometimes so much so the silver screen itself seems stunned by Anderson's mastery of camera, sound, and spectacle. Here and there, the story slides away and we just see a kaleidoscope of bars and stars, of angelic blues, reds, and yellows, accompanied by a circus carousel of tubas and strings that leave us feeling as if we drifted into the sparkle of Fantasia.
Other times, much less showily, the camera lens flares into tiny starbursts that feel less like mistakes than epiphanies of warmth and emotion; and the music comes in two varieties: the percussive clangs of slapstick, and the more Hollywood swoon of lush romance, complete with, oddly enough, Shelly Duvall crooning “He Needs Me” from the Popeye soundtrack - Anderson's nod to his partner in spirit, director Robert Altman.
Charming and bold, eccentric and tremendously moving, Punch-Drunk hits like a torrent of ideas, to the point where even when the movie grows calm - the first shot is of Sandler against a blue wall, and that's it - you still feel something going on. Clearly Anderson is movie-struck, with reels playing in his head, and his film has an off-center dream quality to it, not unlike old MGM musicals or the underrated Steve Martin picture Pennies From Heaven, made, like Sandler, while Martin was still known for playing a jerk.
The camera drifts along, following some characters long distances, and settling on unshakable images: There's Emily Watson reclining along a windowsill overlooking an airport runway; the shadowed embrace of Watson and Sandler that recalls the panoramas of The Quiet Man; Sandler's soft-shoe number in a supermarket aisle; and the heart-breaking moment his character breaks down, explaining he doesn't like himself sometimes, doesn't know what's wrong, he wants to understand why he cries so much, but he “doesn't know how other people are.”
Sandler plays Barry Egan, a nondescript San Fernando Valley businessman who lives in a characterless apartment complex and runs a mundane bathroom supply company, and has trouble connecting with the world. The only brother to seven pecking sisters, he tries to be friendly and regular, but we can't miss the twitches of nervousness in his lips, the way he mumbles, and the forced cheer he tries to show through it all.
Barry is the kind of guy who wears a bright blue suit to work for no other reason, I think, than to convince himself he has any importance at all. As bland as he sounds, Barry is one of the best characters in years, the typical genial schlub Sandler usually plays, only turned on his head, with all previously unacknowledged faucets of detachment and sadness open and flowing, and not for laughs.
The movie is about Barry's awakening to life and love, about the eruption of mercy and self-knowledge into his lonely world. There are a few laughs here, but most are the uneasy sort, and Sandler rises to the challenge. He reveals depths not previously hinted at. Myself, I've never been a fan. Can't say I've liked one of his movies, not ever. His voice grates; his characters are always too nice, too supposedly sensitive, then prone to inexplicable bursts of violence to get cheap laughs.
But Sandler is mesmerizing here. Touching and painful to watch at times, he approaches Punch-Drunk Love as a kind of mental High Noon: There's a subplot involving a phone sex entrepreneur (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and an extortion scheme, but the focus is on Barry's intent to finally stand up to his own fury. A fissure of gathering hostility, Barry explodes periodically, and these violent fits, always a laugh before, are truly scary now. The split in Barry is best illustrated in the surreal opening scene.
Cup of coffee in hand, standing in the pre-dawn light, he witnesses a violent car crash; moments later, inexplicably, a van drops off a harmonium (a small organ); Barry is dumbfounded, glancing around; soon after that, big-eyed Lena (Watson), shows up and asks him to watch her car. When life starts spinning out of control, Barry finds comfort in the organ's reassuring wheeze.
Writing this, I realize a simple plot summary does no justice; the movie sounds too weird. And it is, sometimes, but a generous kind of weird. Lena is not much of a character. She's more like Anderson's idea of unconditional love, and our shepherd into the closed-off Barry; she falls for him quietly, compassionately - she's one big yes - and we respond in turn.
Will Sandler's fans react with revulsion? Confusion? I hope not. Will art house snobs, or anyone over 40, even consider a movie with Sandler? You'd hope moviegoers never forget to keep themselves open to the most important element of movies: surprise. How thrilling it is to watch an engaged director operating at the top of his game, still in creative ascent with no sign of a peak in sight.
You can feel Anderson's exhilaration in every frame. The last time a movie literally made my jaw drop open was in his previous work, Magnolia, and that was when frogs rained from the sky in a squishy catharsis of sorts, the capper of a three-hour plus opera of anguish and hope. Punch-Drunk Love is half that long, but all miracle, and so far, my favorite movie of the year.