Adam Sandler appeals to people because his characters in films like The Waterboy and Mr. Deeds are childish, inane, and angry. Detractors might use those same adjectives to describe Paul Thomas Anderson, the unapologetic auteur of such uneven but original indulgences as Boogie Nights and Magnolia, and throw in others like opaque, arrogant, and pretentious. So it’s no surprise that Sandler and Anderson work together so well in Punch-Drunk Love, a barbed but sweet-natured bagatelle of whimsy and wounded innocence that is the best film from either.
The situation unfolds like a contrived exercise in a fiction-writing workshop. Take Barry Egan (Adam Sandler), put him in a blue suit, give him seven hectoring sisters, make him the proprietor of a novelty bathroom-supply company, and put him on the phone with some contractor discussing coupons and pudding purchases. So what happens when an SUV flips over outside his office (actually one in a long row of featureless garages along an alleyway) and a cab deposits a tiny keyboard instrument, a harmonium as it turns out, on the sidewalk?
All this in the first five minutes of screen time might be more weirdness than most viewers are willing to put up with. Sandler’s presence as Barry, however, eases the transition. Uncomfortable in his big, lumbering body, not to mention his clownish suit, he regards such absurd intrusions into his ferrety, beleaguered existence with a mixture of muttering resignation and festering outrage. He will bear the most unreasonable and surreal violation to a point, but beyond that he will erupt into ineffectual fury.
Compare Sandler with Tom Hanks in a similar position in Joe Versus the Volcano (1990). John Patrick Shanley’s genial nonsense might have worked had Hanks’s snide callowness-just-maturing-into-pomposity not called attention to the artifice. But with Sandler’s dignified, unreflective but dangerously volatile puerility as a foil, Anderson’s flights of fancy, which sound so precious when synopsized, take on the aura of spontaneous, dreamlike nonsense, seeming serendipities that don’t add up, the stuff of life.
Then there’s the Emily Watson factor. As Lena Leonard, the woman whom Barry’s noodgiest sister, Elizabeth (Mary Lynn Rajskub, just one of this film’s scene stealers), wants to fix him up with, she serves much the same function as she does in Breaking the Waves and, with less success, in The Luzhin Defense: nursemaid to a damaged, beloved man. Here, though, she’s much more bemused and clear-eyed, a kind of Alice in Barry’s tawdry wonderland, the one to point out, with curiosity but not judgmentally, that there is a piano in the street.
But the course of skewed love never runs smooth. Barry resists Elizabeth’s crass efforts to match him up with Lena at a Kafka-esque family gathering where the seven sisters and various in-laws drive him into a tantrum of rage and grief that is at once horrific, pathetic, and hilarious. To assuage his loneliness, he turns to a phone-sex line, and that opens a Pandora’s box of further outlandish woes. Suffice to say that complementing the seven wicked sisters, in true fairy-tale fashion, are four trollish brothers, and they’re all from Provo, Utah, supervised by Philip Seymour Hoffman in a blond Elvis pompadour.
So when do the frogs rain down? Fortunately, this is Anderson in a lyrical, not epic mode, and as opposed to the turgid excesses of Magnolia, the narrative, despite its complexities and insanities, is exuberantly limpid. And very relaxed and low-key — instead of a parade of weeping, moribund patriarchs, as in Magnolia, he offers the weirdly perfect cameos of Rajskub, Hoffman, and Luis Guzmán as Barry’s bewildered assistant, Lance.
Low-key, but still claustrophobic. Like David Lynch and the Coen brothers, Anderson excels at creating a subjective if not solipsistic universe. The visual scheme of dustily tinted, largely empty and asymmetrical compositions denotes the world as Barry sees it, a bleak enclosure assaulted by terrors and wonders that leap in from outside the frame. When he flees at last to Hawaii, the color palette explodes, and it’s almost like adding another dimension of depth and possibility.
That happens not a moment too soon; there’s not much that Punch-Drunk Love does wrong, except maybe the way it emphasizes Barry’s already frayed point of view with Jon Brion’s nerve-jangling, percussive, atonal score. But there’s not much it does normally, either, and that might make it the first Adam Sandler movie that doesn’t become a blockbuster (his performance could share the fate of Jim Carrey’s dark, ambitious turn in Cable Guy). On the other hand, the film might become Anderson’s breakthrough hit. Either way, it’s the one in which he’s found his on-screen persona. And if there’s any justice, it will be the beginning of a punch-drunk love affair of perfectly matched talents.