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Dustin's Review
Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
3 Stars

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, Luis Guzman, Mary Jane Rajskub, Ashley Clark, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julie Hermelin, Lisa Spector
2002 – 89 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for language, sexual dialogue, and violence).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 19, 2002.

punch-drunk adj.
Behaving in a bewildered, confused, or dazed manner.

You can't blame Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) for possessing this characteristic. Still in the process of jump-starting his own business of creating and selling specialized bathroom items, Barry is a lonely, single thirtysomething whose usual meekness is offset with sudden explosions of rage. No matter how hard he tries, he cannot escape the wrath of seven overbearing, annoying sisters who claim they only want to help him, but consistently set out to make his life a living hell. When Lena (Emily Watson) walks into his life and quickly makes it clear that she is interested in starting a relationship with him, Barry almost can't believe or comprehend it. It is very likely he has never had a girlfriend before, and the prospect of finally getting one leaves him simultaneously elated, excited, and stupefied.

"Punch-Drunk Love" is the unusual and hypnotic new film from director Paul Thomas Anderson. From the filmmaker who last brought audiences a pair of epic character dramas (1997's "Boogie Nights" and 1999's "Magnolia"), his latest is a sizable departure for him in terms of tone and length, but not in style. All of Anderson's signatures make a return, including his talent of incorporating mesmerizing musical selections to scenes and a preference for dizzying, unbroken shots over attention-deprived MTV-style editing.

On the flipside, Anderson's previous oeuvre has leaned toward the darker corners of human emotion, while "Punch-Drunk Love" aspires to be a magical romantic comedy, albeit one of the most oddball and offbeat entries the genre has ever had. And whereas "Boogie Nights" was just under three hours and "Magnolia" was just over three hours, "Punch-Drunk Love" registers at a to-the-point 89 minutes.

The results of Paul Thomas Anderson's fresh attempt are flawed, and not nearly the masterpieces that his previous pictures have been, but still far superior to the majority of today's mainstream moviemaking. The opening ten minutes are astonishing and perplexing in equal measure, perhaps too much so because the film rarely reaches those lofty heights again. Finishing up a phone conversation at the warehouse his business is set in, Barry walks out into the morning sunlight of a peaceful Los Angeles, only to witness a violent car crash, followed by a van that mysteriously drops off a small piano in the road and zooms off. Until Lena arrives to drop off her car at the auto repair shop next door and comments on it, Barry doesn't even know if the piano is real or just a figment of his imagination.

Intercut between the tender romance between Barry and Lena is a creepy subplot that begins when Barry, in need of having a conversation with someone, innocently enough calls a sex phone hotline. After giving out his credit card number, address, and phone number, he is taunted by the woman on the other end of the line who demands he either give her $750 or face the consequences. There is also another subplot, this one based on a true story, in which Barry finds a glitch in a sales gimmick from Healthy Choice foods, in which buying $3000 worth of snack pack pudding will give him a lifetime supply of frequent flyer miles.

"Punch-Drunk Love" is being touted as the first film in which comedic actor Adam Sandler (2002's "Mr. Deeds") gets to show his serious side, and this is somewhat accurate. In many ways, Sandler's Barry Egan is similar to his previous screen personas, in that he is playing a childlike man with anger management issues. While this character trait has been played for laughs up until now, it is treated reasonably serious here. In doing this, Sandler has created a three-dimensional person whose anxieties in life are surprisingly touching. This is a satisfying performance from Sandler, not necessarily better than the one he gave in 1998's "The Wedding Singer" (his best film), but certainly the one where he exhibits the most range.

Pairing Adam Sandler with respected actress Emily Watson (2002's "Red Dragon") was a novel idea. Watson is lovely as the understanding Lena, but her character is sadly underdeveloped. Very little is learned about Lena or her actions, including her instant attraction to Barry, but Sandler and Watson still make charismatic romantic counterparts. Had Paul Thomas Anderson strengthened the writing of Lena, he undoubtedly would have had another remarkable and bold cinematic achievement. "Punch-Drunk Love" is certainly bold, and not for Sandler's preteen fans, but Anderson has neglected certain essential elements in his screenplay simply to come in at a promised 90 minutes.

With that said, "Punch-Drunk Love" is endlessly fascinating and original. The character study of Barry is carried out with precision and care, the treatment of his annoying sisters and their indelible impact on him strikes a resonant chord, and the romance between he and Lena is a magical one that avoids cliches. One scene, set to the tune of Shelley Duvall's "He Needs Me," is incendiary, as are the moments when Brion James' intrusively brilliant score kicks in. "Punch-Drunk Love" has elements of sheer brilliance, others of definite intrigue, and some that are disappointingly undernourished. When stirred together under the masterful helm of Paul Thomas Anderson, it is a mixture that deserves to be seen.

©2002 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman