Punch-Drunk Love (review)

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Theater of the Absurd

This was a dilemma specifically designed to torment me, I have no doubt. I had always sworn to never, ever review an Adam Sandler movie, for I cannot stand the overgrown-frat-boy persona he’s given us. But then came news that he’d be starring in a film by writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, who made two of the most intriguing movies of recent years, Boogie Nights and Magnolia. What to do, what to do?

I erred on the side of giving a guy a second chance (though I still dread the prospect of Cajun Man: The Motion Picture), and on the side of not wanting to miss a Paul Thomas Anderson flick, so it’s a little disconcerting to have discovered that Sandler is really quite good here, touchingly so even, and that Anderson may not be.
I know: Everyone else is calling PDL amazing and brilliant and genius and all that, but I honestly don’t see it. It’s quirky, sure, but quirky purely for quirk’s sake, unless I’m too dense to see the hidden meanings and significances of seemingly senseless events, which I’m willing to concede is entirely possible — probable, even. I like a sense of the absurd as much as the next penguin, and there’s absurdity to spare here, but it never builds to a greater, more absurd absurdity — if the point of Anderson’s pointlessness is merely to be pointless, why bother?

Punch-Drunk Love in its entirety is not pointless — as a portrait of repression, it’s downright poignant, and though I’ve always thought Adam Sandler was pretty pathetic, now I mean it in the good, moving way. His Barry Egan, a lonely mouse of a man, lives under the endless sniping of his numerous domineering sisters, and Sandler is ingratiating enough to make us see the problem not in his inability to get past their childish teasing, which obviously continues unabated since childhood, but in their childish teasing itself. I’d never have imagined that Sandler, of all people, who seems to have specialized in unappealing losers, could ever persuade me that inadequacy could be pitiable rather than contemptible, but here we are. Of course, Anderson is also clever, clever enough to push the sisters into the realm of the cruel, one of the measures of absurdity that works in the grand scheme, prodding Barry into action (however much he’d like to avoid it), egging him to finally grow a bit of a backbone.

But why the piano? Why the car crash? They make about as much sense within the context of the film as throwing out the questions makes here, to those of you who haven’t seen the film. The pudding I get. The piano I don’t.

I also don’t quite get Lena Leonard, played by Emily Watson (Gosford Park, Angela’s Ashes), who’s lovelier and more luminous here than I’ve ever seen her. I don’t get quite what she sees in Barry, what makes her chase him like she does. It’s a minor bit of absurdity, one that might almost be forgivable — who knows what we see in half the people we like being with — except that she’s around the darker side of him too much not to be just a more temperate with her feelings, particularly around a man she hardly knows. He’s full of suppressed rage that vents itself, spectacularly — it should give her a little pause. She’s worth the pudding — there’s no question why Barry thinks so. It’s harder to see why she thinks he’s worth the pudding, so to speak.

Punch-Drunk Love, we’re told, is Anderson’s go at a romantic comedy, after two downer dramas. The romantic angle is there, but boy, I didn’t find anything to laugh at — even the absurdities that work are more like puzzling conundrums that poke at my brain rather than tickle it. PDL is Barry’s show, and he’s simply too hauntingly sad for any other emotion to peek through. This is certainly an unforgettable film, not always in the best way, but that’s all right. That I’m still thinking about an Adam Sandler performance — geez, did I say “Adam Sandler performance”? — is extraordinary stuff enough for one film.

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