Punch-Drunk Love Movie Review

Dingbat love has never been as oddly appealing as in "Punch-Drunk Love," a surrealistically fluffy romance from the traditionally somber Paul Thomas Anderson ("Boogie Nights," "Magnolia").

Affably, obligingly abstract from the curiously inspired casting of Adam Sandler as a meek, sad, eccentric romantic hero to the peculiar plot about sex chat-line extortion and pudding-procured frequent flyer miles, it's a charming, strange little movie that strikes at the heart while the head is still trying to figure it out.

The story begins about 6 in the morning, with early-to-rise goofball entrepreneur Barry Egan (Sandler) sitting at a plain desk in the empty corner of the warehouse where his startup company makes novelty toilet plungers (wedding cake figurines perched atop the handle, dice and dollar bills in transparent handles for Vegas hotels, etc.). Compelled to take a walk outside with his ever-present cup of coffee, he witnesses a traffic accident on the near-empty street, while at the same time a minivan pulls up in front of him and dumps a harmonium (like a miniature console piano with accordion bellows under the keyboard) on the curb for no discernable reason. Such is the irrationally whimsical world of a P.T. Anderson picture.

The harmonium becomes Barry's touchstone as his psyche is soon battered from some quarters -- he has seven domineering sisters who treat him like an emotional punching bag -- and soothed from others. One sister sets him up with a quirky co-worker named Lena (Emily Watson) and instantly there's some subtle magic in the air -- something pulling them together like magnets.

The wonderful Watson -- just seen as the killer's blind girlfriend in "Red Dragon," but best known for sorrowful roles in grim dramas like "Angela's Ashes" and "Breaking the Waves" -- infuses Lena with both an altruistic femininity and a sweetly awkward lack of certitude that makes her attraction to Barry seem like destiny even though she can see he's a fidgety flake with some weird problems.

One of those problems is that before they met, Barry was seeking psychotherapy in all the wrong places, including from a brother-in-law ("I don't like myself sometimes. Can you help me?" "Barry, I'm a dentist.") and from a phone sex operator, who scammed him big time, thinking he was rich. It seems she got the idea that Barry had lots of money because of something he said about frequent flier miles, and now she's trying to extort him for more.

In fact, to get those miles Barry had run a scam of his own, taking advantage of a loophole in an airfare contest run by a health food company that allowed him to redeem proofs of purchase worth more than the 25-cent cups of pudding they were printed on. (This element of the plot is actually based on someone who did this in real life!)

Being taken advantage of with such tenacity resurfaces Barry's childhood problem controlling his anger, throwing a wildcard element into the movie that's handled with brilliantly visceral cinematic aplomb by writer-director Anderson. When our hero's head fills with rage, the camera becomes kinetic and the sound muffled, buffering Barry's docile consciousness from his actions as he, for example, beats the stuffing out of some small-time thugs who have come from Utah to intimidate him on behalf of the porn line swindlers.

Sandler gives a performance that is freshly anachronistic but ever so slightly familiar, especially in these scenes that play to his capacity for all-over-the-map emoting. But he's also genuine and open-hearted with Watson, as their characters take mutually awkward steps toward romance before Barry makes one huge leap: Running away from his problems as much as running toward Lena, he follows her on a business trip to Hawaii, at first by trying to cash in his pudding miles before discovering they take six to eight weeks to redeem.

Captivating, capricious and delectably eclectic, "Punch-Drunk Love" is every inch an Anderson movie that decyphers its characters' souls while leaving layers of subliminal import to work their way into your consciousness over the days and weeks afterwards in beguiling little ways. Everything in the film has a meaning, be it the costumes (Lena wears Doris Day-like cashmere sweaters and Barry never changes out of his brand-new, bright blue suit) or the uncanny, effervescent score (harmonium included, of course) and colorful, Mark Rothko-like modern-art scene transitions that help create a calypso ambiance.

Far more than a cry for respectability from Sandler (Anderson would never agree to something that cheap), this is a melodious, astutely unconventional romantic comedy and the kind of idiosyncratic delight that makes going to the movies genuinely fun for anyone interested in more fulfilling fare than the multiplex offers.


Punch-Drunk Love Rating

" OK "

Rating: R, NY/LA: Friday, October 11, 2002<br> LIMITED: Friday, October 18, 2002


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