Unfortunately, as long as his half-assed outings were making more bank than the Nile, there was no way Sandler was going to star in anything challenging, or interesting, or even not kinda sucky. Luckily, his last fiasco, Little Nicky, tanked at the box office, giving him some free time to try to do something more worthwhile than his usual heartwarming-story-with-multiple-urination-scenes projects.
Sandler's greatest asset has always been how likable he is. Even when playing characters who are, at least superficially, totally unpleasant, he always seems like the guy you should be rooting for. P.T. Anderson, writer/director of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, must have seen this trait in Sandler, because he decided to completely invert it for his latest film.
Punch Drunk Love tells the story of Barry Egan, who is, on the surface, a nice, if shy and nerdy, fellow. However, deep down, Barry is the kind of raging psychopath that it's better to never, ever know. A slight bout of teasing leads him into violent rages. He lies constantly to cover his insane behavior. He buys more pudding than is truly necessary.
He is, in short, not at all likable. Thus it is strange that Barry finds himself in what is essentially a remake of one of the Technicolor romantic comedies of the '50s and early '60s.
As scenes dissolve in a swirl of colors, Barry is drawn into a romance with Lena (Emily Watson), who is not only too pretty for him, she's way too nice and smart for him, too. In fact, there's no real explanation for why she likes him, but that seems to be the point. It's the magic of the movies that girls and boys, even if they're in their late 30s, are brought together to find the thing that the ancient Scythians once called "love."
What sets Punch Drunk Love apart from most other romantic films, though, is how deeply unpleasant Barry is, and how incredibly tense the entire film is. Even in scenes where virtually nothing is happening, the audience is made to feel like they're sitting in a room with the dying parent who sexually abused them. The music pounds, the characters sweat, the meaningless dialogue seems to be hiding some horrible, horrible secret.
And throughout this, Sandler is bizarrely perfect. Instead of being the likable guy in the low-brow comedy, he's the disturbed center of this perfectly balanced film. None of P.T. Anderson's previous movies, with their rambling, expansive nature, are preparation for how concisely aimed this work is.
In fact, none of them are terribly visually similar to this one, either. Anderson uses the kinds of effects and music found in old Doris Day comedies. He even has Sandler wear the kind of Technicolor blue suit that Tony Randall used to sport for his sad sack roles.
While the outer trappings of the story are retro, the inner elements are a mean twist on more contemporary romantic comedies. The standard formula for these is that some guy stalks a woman until she falls in love with him, because, as we all know, women love being stalked. And there's no one more wonderful than a stalker, who is, after all, just someone who loves a little too much.
Since theses movies make dangerous criminals out to be cuddly sweethearts, Anderson starts in the other direction, giving us a romantic lead who seems like the kind of guy who might take orders to kill from a dog named Sam.
And he doesn't just hint at the problem, either, which is what makes Punch Drunk Love so brilliant and so hard to sit through. Sandler's Barry Egan is clearly in constant, intense emotional turmoil, and he shares that with the audience. Even his calm moments are horrifying because Barry is so clearly uncomfortable and incapable of normal human interaction.
I'd like to recommend this film for everyone, because it's so expertly made, so daring, and so artistically successful that I think P.T. Anderson and company should be fiscally rewarded for their courage and aesthetic sensibility. Unfortunately, I'd have to say that most people will probably find this film unbearable. It's so intense, and so intentionally grating, that it will probably alienate the majority of filmgoers. Still, if you're the kind of refined movie lover who thinks Woman Under the Influence and Happiness are great films, you'll probably think this is the best thing you've seen all year. On the other hand, if you think "nuclear" is pronounced "nook-ya-ler" then I'd suggest staying home from the cinema until the long-awaited Baby Geniuses 4: Diaper Wrath comes out.