I have never been a fan of Adam Sandler. Even back in his Saturday Night Live days, I thought most of his recurring sketch characters were one-joke ponies which grew tiresome after their first appearance. His early movie choices, with a few notable exceptions, served only to give “low-brow” a bad name. His characters were uniformly infantile child-men with explosive tempers and retarded social skills. (That, however, hasn’t stopped Billy Madison from actually being referenced in recent court decision.)
The real genius of Punch Drunk Love is how writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson took that stock Sandler character, injected some real depth into it and then wove a surreal but heartfelt story around this person.
Barry Egan (Sandler) owns a small business in Los Angeles, where they sell, among other things, unbreakable toilet plungers for hotels. He has eight big problems in his life, seven of them his sisters. This nosy gaggle pries into his life and smothers with him with a toxic mixture of motherly concern and contempt. At the beginning of the movie, they are constantly badgering him at work to make sure he is attending a party thrown by one of them. His other problem is a tendency to submerge his emotions beneath an awkwardly cheerful exterior until they exploded in crying fits or violent bursts of anger, usually at socially devastating times, such as his sister’s party.
He has another problem, brought upon himself when he calls a phone-sex line that fronts for a credit card fraud scheme, run out of a Utah mattress shop run by Dean Trumbell (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
Into this rather sad, perplexed life comes a woman named, Lena (Emily Watson), whom Barry meets when she drops her car off at the repair shop next door. She turns out to be a friend of his most sympathetic sister (Mary Lynn Rajskub), who proceeds to try to fix them up. This poses serious challenges for a man who’s both emotionally constipated and has the social skills of a claymore mine. But there is something equally different about Lena, who manages to take it in stride when her date gets them thrown out of a nice restaurant by trashing the men’s room in a fit of rage.
This movie is described as a romantic comedy but the laughs will be hard to detect by the usual fans of that genre. Like The Weather Man, Punch Drunk Love laces its comedy with enough sadness to reduce any giggles to sympathetic chuckles.
Barry Egan does stretch Sandler’s acting muscles and proves that he was just coasting when he made Happy Gilmore and The Waterboy. Some of Sandler’s recent choices have shown an effort to grow beyond the sophomoric roles that defined his early career. This is good, because roles like that cannot sustain a career. Too many efforts like Little Nicky will have him on the E! channel’s “where are they now?” file sooner than later.
Emily Watson is every bit as good, although she’s not called upon to carry the film, while Philip Seymour Hoffman shines in the film’s most explicitly comedic role, ruling over his mattress, fraud and phone-sex empire like a low-rent Tony Soprano.
The film also marks a minor departure for Paul Thomas Anderson, away from the long, sprawling efforts like Boogie Nights and Magnolia.
The only thing that didn’t really work for me was a sub-plot involving a harmonium left on the curb near Barry’s place of business. It didn’t add much other than the sense that the filmmaker was showing off how surreal he could be. Fortunately, that doesn’t keep Punch Drunk Love from being the Adam Sandler movie for people who can’t stand Adam Sandler movies.