Punch-Drunk Love

reviewed by Steve Sailer

UPI, October 10, 2002


Adam Sandler is one very lucky man. And not just because he draws salaries of up to $25 million for playing the same character over and over again: a slightly defective man-child whom audiences find sweet and lovable despite his intermittently vicious temper. (Remember Sandler's fistfight with white-haired game show host Bob Barker in "Happy Gilmore?")

Still, it's not likely that people will be watching any of these comedies 50 years from now. And that matters to movie stars. If their films go permanently out of style, a few have what it takes to find useful work, such as baseball team owner (Gene Autry) or President (Ronald Reagan). Many, however, fear winding up as forgotten as Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Boulevard."

If you are, say, 77-year-old Donald O'Connor, while you're no doubt grateful that your Francis the Talking Mule movies paid a lot of bills, it must be more satisfying knowing that after half a century you still make 'em laugh in "Singin' in the Rain."

Sandler's latest piece of luck is that Paul Thomas Anderson, the 32-year-old Bard of Studio City, conceived his rather wonderful new movie "Punch-Drunk Love" specifically to allow Sandler to play Sandler.

(Don't be embarrassed if you can't tell your brilliant 32-year-old auteurs named Anderson apart without a scorecard. The co-writer and director of last year's clever "Royal Tenenbaums" was Wes Anderson, not this film's Paul Thomas Anderson.)

"Punch-Drunk Love" is a romantic comedy of sorts. Many will hate it, but more than a few will love it. I found it the most artistically ambitious and successful movie since last spring's "Unfaithful." In emotional depth and visual-musical magic, "Punch-Drunk Love" is to Sandler's own crude comedies as Chaplin's "City Lights" was to the Little Tramp's first slapstick shorts.

It opens in NYC and LA on Friday, and nationally on Oct. 18.

"Boogie Nights," Anderson's epic-length 1997 exploration of the San Fernando Valley's porno industry mostly revealed that the people in that racket are such morons that their resident visionary genius could be credibly played by Burt Reynolds. Yet, Anderson's precocious mastery of filmcraft was so compelling it made the tawdriness worth watching.

Unlike in "Boogie Nights" and his sprawling "Magnolia," here Anderson concentrates just on his main character, a struggling businessman -- he wholesales novelty toilet plungers -- who isn't quite right in the head.

Rather than trying to cover up the mental illness that's implicit in most of Sandler's previous roles, Anderson emphasizes it. He gives Sandler a textbook worth of troubles: Asperger's Syndrome, severe shyness, manic depression with violent outbursts, and possible hallucinations.

Anderson conveys the isolation and confusion of his hero by filming him in extremely shallow focus, with the rest of the world left a blur. It can be noisy inside the protagonist's head, too. The sound editing is among the most brutal ever: a coworker's chair suddenly collapses with a ferocious crack. (Random accidents erupt all over the fringes of the film.)

All this sounds horrible to watch, but Anderson's gorgeous colors and framing shed an uncanny grace on the goodhearted hero. Sandler makes him endearing, even enthralling in his struggle for the happiness he deserves. The star's uncanny likeability had me rooting for him all the way, even though in real life I'd shun him as potentially mad, bad, and dangerous to know.

I thought "Punch-Drunk Love" was quite funny, too, although that won't be a universal opinion.

With such a rich central character, Anderson can afford supporting roles that are as stylized as minor figures from the Grimm Bros.

Like a fairytale hero, Sandler has seven sisters. Whether they relentlessly nag him -- "Why did you throw that hammer through the plate-glass window after we called you 'Gayboy?'" -- because he's weird or he is weird because they nag him is left unanswered.

Sandler is pursued by four implacable brothers under the command of an ogre, the sleazy and volcanic Philip Seymour Hoffman, whom Sandler must ultimately face.

Emily Watson plays a lovely woman (and only child) who decides to fall in love with Sandler when she sees a picture of him with his seven sisters.

(Oddly enough, Hoffman and Watson play nearly the same roles as in last week's "Red Dragon." Only here, the nut Watson falls for is a man of tortured integrity, not a serial killer sicko.)

In her classically feminine 1940s-style gored skirts, Watson is just as much a symbol of redemptive love and living happily ever after as Prince Charming is in a little girl's fairy tale. If she were a fully real person, we'd worry about her safety at the hands of her unstable new boyfriend. But, because she's more a vision than a character, she can't be hurt, so we can fully rejoice in Sandler's salvation.

Rated R for strong language including a scene of sexual dialogue.


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