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Jordan Hiller on Film

Punch Drunk Love (2002)

For Dog, who is a friend and who met Adam Sandler while serving papers to Lennox Lewis.

There are two stories here, maybe three. The first and most glaring is Adam Sandler, who has grown up before our eyes - from "Remote Control" to SNL to those insanely catchy Hanukkah songs (sorry, but half those folks ain't Jewish) to a slew of distasteful yet apparently irresistible comedies (Happy Gilmore, The Waterboy, recently Mr. Deeds) - and has been a constant force in nonsensical, rebel entertainment throughout. So if you saw pictures of Adam Sandler at this year's Cannes Film Festival with his arm around Academy Award Nominated actress Emily Watson (Breaking the Waves), standing with his meek, but somehow triumphant grin alongside phenom director Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) and were wondering, "is there a punch line?", "is he drunk?", I guess you were incidentally two thir
ds right. Punch-Drunk Love transforms, or rather reimagines, Sandler as a tortured hero, a romantic leading man, and (with hesitation and I'll tell you why) a dramatic actor. That's story number one. In true P.T. Anderson fashion, we'll skip now to story number three, allude to number two, then actually articulate number two, eventually come back to number one, and by the end you should be so baffled that you'll think this was some damn good writing.

Story number three is about a writer/director who has proven himself a dynamic artist and craftsman, meticulously sculpting soul wrenching depictions of California's miserable people. The story is that he chooses Adam Sandler to play the protagonist in his latest effort. How did he make such a brilliant, thoughtful decision? Remember though, that this is the same man who took "actor" Mark Whalberg back in 1997 when he was still called "Marky Mark" when he left the room and set him on the road to legitimacy by casting him as Dirk Diggler. The man evidently has an eye because Cajun-Man works miraculously here. Sandler embodies the lonely, anxiety plagued, emotionally stunted, beauty of a human being, Barry Egan with real purpose and grace. Allot of the credit goes to Anderson for his wonderful gift for writing in a way that finds the depth in plain speech and also for his clear forceful influence when handling actors used to doing their own thing (See also Tom Cruise's Oscar nominated performance in Magnolia).

Anderson has said that he chose Sandler for the simple reason that Adam makes him laugh and that he loves it when Adam gets infuriated on screen. You'd think a man with such exquisite aesthetic taste when it came to film would have the same when it came to comedy, but go figure. Maybe a strange reason to cast Billy Madison as your lead (not exactly an inconsequential decision), but I don't believe anyone will ever accuse Anderson of sticking to the script. After all, this is the man who made the film Magnolia after listening to Aimee Man's music and decided that it needed a story to go along with it.

Sandler, who has explored some emotional range before in films like The Wedding Singer (tell me you didn't tear up when he sang "Growing Old With You" to Drew Barrymore on the plane….or when you saw how leathery Billy Idol looked), may not have officially made the leap to dramatic actor just yet. His next film is an all-out Sandler comedy called "Anger Management" with the distinction that it stars Jack Nicholson, who would appeared to have been slumming had it not been for Sandler's new-found respect among thespians. Not only that, Punch-Drunk Love has a very fine comedic edge to it and while it is not a typical Sandler style comedy, Barry Egan is a very standard Sandler character, just tone down the stupidity a bit and jack up the grit and wound exposure. Paul Thomas Anderson used Sandler for a very specific purpose -to convey a sense of tough-luck awkwardness and smile-masking-frown frustration, and it worked perfectly - if other directors sense falsely that they can do the same, or if Sandler attempts to go out on his own dramatic limb, this carefully constructed house of cards may come crashing down.

Story number two is Anderson and his new film, Punch-Drunk Love. It is about a disgruntled, disengaged, weird looking, weird dressing guy looking for what turns out to be companionship (this could have been a documentary filmed in Washington Heights). He is rescued by what I can only presume to be an angel in the human form of Emily Watson whom I am newly in love with - she is a marvel of delicate feminine energy. Everything else in the film is just Andersonisms. When you sit down for a P.T. Anderson epic (although Punch-Drunk Love is significantly shorter in scope and running time as compared to his last two films) you really don't know what you're going to get. Could be some terrifically raw interaction between human beings at the ends of their endlessly knotted ropes, could be….frogs raining from the heavens in all seriousness. I could do the without the frogs - I like my metaphors watered down. For the first ten minutes of his new film, Anderson delivers what appears to be another amphibian-fest - a combination of oddities that you know really won't go anywhere and even if they do, it's just too much - too obvious that he's trying to be odd. Once that is out of the way, we begin to settle in and truly discover Barry and all his endearing and frightening idiosyncrasies. The film does not shy away from being violent or perverse and seeing Sandler in these situations does not feel unnatural - more like a very pleasant surrealism. We can root for Barry all the way because we see in him the outsider in all of us, whether it be in the family, romantic, social, or business setting. We want him to have a victory because he deserves it just for suffering the role of outsider. This is the heart of the film and it is a large, vibrant, beating heart filled with that deliciously intoxicating red liquid.

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Reviews by Jordan Hiller

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