Fairy-tale romanticism, eccentric charm and a malevolent current of suppressed anger compete for supremacy of attention in “Punch-Drunk Love.” Entirely unpredictable and marked by audacious strokes of directorial bravado, individualistic comedy is notable for the way that San Fernando Valley auteur Paul Thomas Anderson has effectively channeled the talents of the king of moronic farce, Adam Sandler. Predominantly whimsical but with an acute, even subversive streak of psycho-social commentary that’s there for the taking but will most likely be ignored by the masses, Sony release straddles the general audience and specialized worlds rather in the manner of “The Royal Tenenbaums,” meaning that similarly robust but not knockout B.O. should result with the right marketing push.
Inspired by a real-life fellow who found a fine-print loophole in a frequent flyer coupon program that enabled him to translate $3,000 in pudding purchases into 1 million free miles, quirky yarn shows Anderson at his stylistic summit in the opening minutes. In a virtuoso combination of bold compositions, exceptional camera moves, brilliantly timed cutting and gutsy sound effects, Barry Egan (Sandler) is presented as a genuine oddball stranded in his own barren private universe whose real-world context only gradually takes shape around him.
Arriving at a Valley warehouse in an industrial area in the early morning, Barry works the phone to various ends until his co-workers, led by Lance (Luis Guzman), finally arrive to tend to their merchandise orders. On the morning in question, a lovely Englishwoman, Lena (Emily Watson), briefly turns up, and Barry’s many sisters call to make sure he’ll be attending a party that night.
A personality most people would describe as pasty, bland, unassertive and shy, Barry is prone to sporadic bursts of sudden violence, such as kicking the glass out of door or smashing up a restaurant bathroom –an important subtext emphasized on the soundtrack by abrupt ear-splitting noises and turbulent, often percussive music. As if recognizing his problem, he asks a brother-in-law for help in finding a psychiatrist but turns for more immediate relief to a phone sex line, which quickly leads to trouble when the woman on the other end, having obtained Barry’s credit card number, begins phoning him back with extortion threats.
However, this evocation of the little man’s relationship to the greater corporate world that cannot be seen — one which he is taking advantage of, on the one hand, and is being victimized by, on the other — is narratively subsumed by Barry’s incipient romance with Lena, who realizes she’ll have to be the aggressor if anything’s going to come of their relationship. In fact, the aspect of the film that’s hardest to swallow is that a young lady who looks as good as Watson would single-mindedly set her sights on a dweeby and very possibly troubled guy like Sandler’s Barry.
Short, tight film comes to a head in a mix of Hawaii-set romance, with Barry pursuing Lena to Honolulu, and melodrama, perpetrated by the phone sex girl’s many Utah brothers led by the hot-headed Dean (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
Just as the Sandler-Anderson collaboration reps, on paper, the bizarre union of commercial Hollywood cinema at its most brainless and the independent world at its most intense, “Punch-Drunk Love” will no doubt be experienced very differently by the separate audiences who dwell in those respective realms. Sandler fans will probably take it as a lightweight, but agreeable enough, outing with slightly weird elements to it, while Anderson partisans could split between those who will revel in the thrill of his ongoing creative inventions and others who may find this light lifting between heavy workouts.
Still, there is no mistaking the exceeding creativity that has gone into nearly every shot, transition, narrative choice and musical selection. Anderson continues to find amazingly fertile artistic ground in the physically barren and emphatically banal Valley settings (he builds both humor and suspense, for instance, from something as incidental as confusingly numerous hallway-apartment-number arrows), making it an environment no less capable of spawning everything from full-on romantic love to profound paranoia than New York or Paris.
The degree to which he uses this story and the Barry character to convey something about young men’s pent-up aggression and violent tendencies will be argued about, but these elements at the very least provide the film with effective left hooks and sharp body blows that keep the viewer off balance.
Sandler’s numbskull persona from past films is of little or no relevance here, and the comic performer, who wears a blue suit and tie throughout, is entirely watchable and even engaging as a young man whose demons and eccentricity could yet tilt him either way in life. Watson is quite fetching and particularly effective in her hesitations and slow-burn timing opposite a character who’s far from sure of himself, and Hoffman gets off some scary, profanity-laced outbursts.
Craft contributions are superb, notably Robert Elswit’s bracing widescreen lensing, Leslie Jones’ impeccably precise editing, production design by William Arnold that augments the effectiveness of Anderson’s carefully chosen locations and Jon Brion’s eclectic score.