Most movies are pretty surreal when you think about them. When you’re watching a formulaic romantic comedy for instance, you suspend some disbelief and know that everything that happens is a little strange.
So for Paul Thomas Anderson to make a genre picture with Adam Sandler but call attention to just how odd a movie can be, he’s really making a more realistic, elegant and beautiful movie than anything Adam Sandler would usually star in.
“Punch-Drunk Love” has been generously referred to as “The Art House Adam Sandler” movie, and since its release in 2002, it’s used that label to justify its cult appeal. It’s become a favorite PTA film for most of his fans, displaying all the life and gravity of “There Will Be Blood” with the charms of “Boogie Nights.”
Except the style hardly matches his other films, or for that matter any film. It’s the story of Barry Egan (Sandler), a socially and romantically timid basket case with a tendency to explode in rage and violence after the prodding of his seven sisters. This stems most directly from the split persona Sandler has created for himself both before and after this film.
But Anderson doesn’t play Sandler’s outbursts for laughs. Very little of “Punch-Drunk Love” is jokingly funny for that matter. When Barry smashes his sister’s window at a party, his entire family only shouts at him as if they’ve heard this all before.
He’s introduced to a friend of his sister’s, Lena (Emily Watson), who is just as timid as he is. They fall in love instantly because they seem to understand how hurt the other must be. In bed, the two whisper sweet nothings of abuse and even cannibalism to one another. All the while, Jon Brion’s excessively maudlin string section swells as though this is just another Hollywood romance.
That’s the beauty of “Punch-Drunk Love,” a movie that manipulates the clichés and the familiar moments to create something all the more lovely. Love should be this odd, if not plain insane.
And while much has been written about Sandler’s depths as an actor, it’s Anderson’s camera and pacing that make this romance so engrossing. Sandler performs an exotic dance of musical chairs in one scene as he juggles getting his testy sister (Mary Lynn Rajskub) off his back, a disaster in his warehouse, a phone sex line harassing him for money and flirting pleasantries with Lena. All the while, lens flares illuminate the off-kilter and always-moving frame. Love and life poses so many complications that it’s impossible to address any of them. Instead, it’s best to embrace how dizzying and confusing this love can be.
It’s impossible to justify any part of the way “Punch-Drunk Love” looks. Anderson uses rainbow kaleidoscope transitions that seem to bare no significance at all. Where another director would edit together a close-up, Anderson circles endlessly around the room. No one makes movies like this in America any more.
It’s all strange, scary and enchanting, as all the strongest feelings of passion should be.
3 ½ stars