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Punch-Drunk Love

Punch-Drunk Love

Rated R, 95 min. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Starring Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Luis Guzmán, Mary Lynn Rajskub.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Oct. 18, 2002

Any film that has its male lead utter the line, “I feel like I want to smash your face with a hammer” as a midcoital sweet nothing has more than its share of scary monsters swimming just below the surface. Punch-Drunk Love ratchets up the bizarre by having comic naïf Adam Sandler as its lovesick lead. As shy, socially inept warehouse worker Barry Egan, Sandler (in what must be seen as a bid for respectability outside his usual milieu of whackjob post-adolescents and emotionally underdeveloped con men) takes his usual schtick to the obvious conclusion. No longer constrained by “mainstream” comedic mores, his Barry, while outwardly calm on the outside, is a veritable maelstrom of bad, barely contained rage within. Prone to inexplicable crying jags and bouts of sudden, explosive violence (his repair bills for all the holes in his walls must be crippling), Barry embarks on a whirlwind romance with the equally tentative Lena (Watson), a friend of his sister (he has seven of them) who appears just as bewildered by life as he does. Subplots abound -- Barry is in a minor war with a mysterious phone-sex operator trying to blackmail him, he's found a way to exploit a marketing loophole in a frozen-food giveaway that could potentially nab him a million frequent-flyer miles for a measly $3,000, and a mysterious harmonium has appeared, unbidden, in his otherwise over-regimented life. Sandler is excellent in the part, making Barry a wild-card cipher that sucks you in and makes you ache to see him win something -- anything -- from life. He's God's lonely man running on empty, Travis Bickle without the guns, and all the nameless, faceless Joes who litter the periphery of life like amiable DTs barely glimpsed through a waking hangover. Watson's role is sorely underwritten -- she's serving double duty as the female lead and Barry's newfound raison d'être, but her performance seems to be lost amidst the shouting going on between Barry and everyone else. Anderson regular Hoffman is terrific, though, in what is little more than a demented cameo. And Anderson's hallmark stylistics -- long, uninterrupted takes, screwball music choices, and some seriously warped sound design -- are utilized in new and thoroughly unique ways. This isn't Magnolia or Boogie Nights (for starters it's only 95 minutes long), and Anderson fanatics might find it oddly sedate compared to his usual smorgasbord of human chaos. Sandler's regular fanbase, too, will probably leave the theatre scratching their heads. But don't let that dissuade you from seeing this unconventional and idiosyncratic love story from the depths of nowheresville.
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