Punch-Drunk Love

Poster
2002
Paul Thomas Anderson

8/10 (Female lead underdeveloped; too short)

This is an under-rated movie about the irrational mad rush of new love (or maybe infatuation?), and its redeeming/healing powers. Not a terribly original concept, but very originally executed.

I understand why people did not like this movie, and I don’t even blame them. It was hard to swallow. A lot of people, seeing “Adam Sandler” on the bill, expected some sort of comedy, and that would pose a problem with this movie as it isn’t particularly funny. A lot of people who didn’t like it said they weren’t expecting “just another Adam Sandler comedy,” and I believe them. But I also believe that they were still expecting some sort of comedy. One guy I talked to, even after preempting his comments with “I wasn’t expecting another Sandler movie,” went on to complain that it wasn’t funny, and that he didn’t “chuckle” even once. If you are expecting a comedy, you will not like it. It’s not very funny, and the laughs that do come are nervous laughs, because you are uncomfortable and don’t know how else to react.

That said, I am glad I was able to swallow this movie. I feel like I got an incredible amount out of the paltry 90 minutes or so of screentime, which I wish would have been stretched for at least another 20-30 minutes. Even those who did not like it as a whole would have to admit that Adam Sandler was a revelation in this role. Even though he is playing the same essential man in arrested development with anger problems, he takes it to a new depth and gives it a darkness that we haven’t seen before. His performance is downright moving. If nothing else, Sandler-haters must recognize that he used restraint to keep the performance from venturing into “Happy Gilmore” or “Waterboy” territory, and restraint requires talent.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman is one of the best actors alive, and he does not disappoint in this devilish role. He and Sandler are amazing in the way they play off each other, even by phone. Emily Watson was stellar as well, and anyone intrigued by the magnificent expressiveness of her eyes should check out “Breaking the Waves.” But her character — ostensibly due to a script problem — remained somewhat of a nebula to me and was the weakest point of the film: what exactly was attracting her to Barry Egan?

I enjoy scripts like this one that allow for more face time; they are more realistic. After all, in real life you don’t have each person saying exactly what is on their mind in the most poetic of fashions all the time. P.T. Anderson prefers to speak with his actors’ faces rather than with words, and I find that approach incredibly refreshing here. Does anyone remember the 45-second close-up of Mark Wahlberg’s face in “Boogie Nights” (when they’re about to rip off the cokehead)? It was captivating, and Mark Wahlberg isn’t even a good actor! So imagine the results when Anderson has capable actors like Sandler and Watson, and a script that is intended to elicit looks of torment and longing . The script is also excellent in its description of the gradual building of Barry’s tension, up to the point of unbearability. The way you see injustice upon injustice piled on top of him is almost painful. You can recognize that he is basically a good guy who wants to be treated fairly and with respect, just as he tries to treat everyone else. The story arc actually reminds me of the recently-reviewed “A Serious Man” in this way, except that here Barry (and the audience) enjoys a final catharsis.

If you go into this not expecting a comedy but rather a beautiful, redemptive love story I am sure you won’t hate it. You might even like it.

21 March 2010

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