"Punch-Drunk Love" is an Adam Sandler movie with class, and if that sounds like an oxymoron, so be it. The movie is a happy nightmare of silly-smart movie comedy that defies category - and challenges expectations involving Sandler and his pictures.
Written and directed by one of the brainiest of the younger American auteurs, Paul Thomas Anderson ("Boogie Nights"), this offbeat romantic farce puts Sandler - the delight of college students and the bane of some of their elders - on an entirely different stage.
It's an eccentric, highly charged film about a tightly wrapped San Fernando Valley warehouse worker who suddenly finds himself in the midst of improbable danger and romance. It's also the kind of movie that Sandler doesn't usually make: witty, off-trail and emotionally sophisticated. "Punch-Drunk" won a share of the Best Director Prize for Anderson at the last Cannes Film Festival, and it was a real critic's favorite there - something you couldn't say about even the best of Sandler's vehicles ("Billy Madison" or "The Wedding Singer") up to now.
Yet the part of Barry Egan, which Anderson wrote expressly for his explosive star, actually fits Sandler like a rubber glove. He's a mundane guy in a mundane job (answering phones at a merchandise warehouse), a likable bozo whose personality is a blend of boyish charm and wild temper tantrums, His life is a minefield of frustrations and repressed anger. Slowly and drolly, Anderson sketches them all in. Barry, the only male in a family with seven sisters, is a man-child, trapped in a boring life, who embarks on an absurd quest to change things.
Noticing an expensive error in a foods promotion involving frequent flier coupons, Barry has been buying vast amounts of Healthy Choice pudding to cash in on lots of cheap flights. Meanwhile, one of his seven kvetching sisters, Elizabeth (Mary Lynn Rajskub), has been trying to fix him up with comely Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), while his own ill-advised patronage of a seedy phone-sex service has left him prey to the violent bully of an owner, Dean Trumbell (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
Beginning with a brilliant, absurdist opening at the warehouse (a car crashes and both an electric piano and Lena mysteriously appear), we're plunged into Barry's weird routines. And all the unlikely strands converge with the inevitability of a "Twilight Zone" show, as the phone-sex gal (Ashley Clark) demands financial aid and surly Dean sends a band of blond thugs on his trail, as Barry's romance with Lena gets jump-started with an idyll on Oahu, and as all those pudding packages and frequent flier coupons start accumulating at the warehouse to the bewilderment of Barry's fellow worker, Lance (Luis Guzman).
Like most Sandler movies, it's a comedy of wish fulfillment. And like all Anderson's movies, it plays out on several levels - some serious and realistic, some fantastic or lighthearted. "Punch-Drunk Love" is about humdrum lives and how they can be transformed by love and peril. You may feel a little giddy watching it, but not because you're being deluged with teenage fantasies or tasteless gags. This is a movie that actually tries to capture some of the magic of the old smarter Hollywood comedies - and of '60s films like the Beatles musicals - and often does. It has a screw-loose lyricism, a slaphappy grace.
I enjoy Sandler, even in his worse movies. But there's no denying that, like those other American man-children Jerry Lewis and Jim Carrey, he can grate on your nerves. Yet it's a mark of how good Sandler is here that he's playing against brilliant actors like Watson, Guzman and Hoffman - all at their peak. Guzman plays a terrific deadpan reactive role, and Hoffman again demonstrates his fantastic range, impersonating a mean-tempered, calculated screaming pig to perfection. The love scenes between Sandler and Watson are especially piquant.
The Cannes jury that gave Anderson the director prize (which he shared with Korea's Im Kwon-Taek) was chaired by David Lynch, probably one of this film's champions. In a way, the slant on Southern California life here is akin to Lynch's darker take in "Mulholland Drive." No less a showcase for Sandler than "The Wedding Singer," "Punch-Drunk Love" mates the Brooklyn man-child completely with Anderson's eerie vision of the craziness of the everyday. It's always been easy to laugh at and with Sandler; from now on, it will be a lot harder to dismiss him as - imagine that - an artist.
3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
Directed and written by Paul Thomas Anderson; photographed by Robert Elswit; edited by Leslie Jones; production designed by William Arnold; music by Jon Brion; produced by JoAnne Sellar, Daniel Lupi, Anderson. A Revolution Studios/New Line Cinema release; opens Friday, Oct. 18. Running time: 1:37. MPAA rating: R (language, sensuality, violence).
Adam Sandler - Barry Egand
Emily Watson - Lena Leonardd
Philip Seymour Hoffman - Dean Trumbelld
Luis Guzman - Lanced
Mary Lynn Rajskub - Elizabeth d
Ashley Clark - Latishad
Julie Hermelin - Kathleend
James Smooth - Jim Smoothd
Lisa Spector - Susand
David Stevens - David Nathan Stevens - Nat
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.