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'Punch-Drunk Love'

Cinematic quirks give 'Punch-Drunk Love' illuminating power

Friday, October 25, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Only the brilliantly skewed mind of filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson would pursue the cockeyed notion of casting the sweetly belligerent goofball Adam Sandler in a romantic comedy opposite Emily Watson, the mad-scene queen of such provocative dramas as "Breaking the Waves," "Hilary and Jackie" and "Angela's Ashes."

But we're becoming accustomed to Anderson working miracles, be it a rain of frogs in "Magnolia" or finding the humanity beneath the sleaze of the porn world in "Boogie Nights." Not only did he follow through with his oddball conceit, he turned it into something enchanting.

'Punch-Drunk Love'

RATING: R for strong language, including a scene of sexual dialogue.

STARRING: Adam Sandler, Emily Watson.

DIRECTOR: Paul Thomas Anderson.

OFFICIAL SITE: www.punchdrunklove.com


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Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Anderson's film "Punch-Drunk Love" is the way that Sandler's character, small-time businessman Barry Egan, takes the actor's basic comic persona -- a man-child with simple goals whose temper often gets the better of his amiable guilelessness -- and incorporates it into a credible, functional adult.

Watson becomes his perfect match as Lena Leonard, a pleasant but unremarkable woman with a sadness in her nature who finds herself attracted to Barry's basic innocence and doesn't let herself be distracted by his quirks.

"Punch-Drunk Love" may seem like a departure for Anderson in that it is at heart a comedy, does not revolve around a large ensemble of characters (but does utilize a few of the director's favorite actors) and runs at least an hour shorter than each of his past two films.

But it is unquestionably an Anderson film in terms of its cinematic virtuosity -- no one uses the medium with such intuitive skill -- and in its evocative use of sound and music; the presence of a sprawling, tumultuous family unit; its sense of clockwork happenstance, that what happens is so unlikely that it seems foreordained; a sensibility that loves humankind precisely because of its flaws and foibles.

Adam Sandler stars as Barry Egan and Emily Watson stars as Lena Leonard in 'Punch-Drunk Love.' (Bruce Birmelin)

The setup is simple, but complications ensue. Egan, who spends virtually the entire movie dressed in a bright blue suit, sells novelties out of a warehouse office. His seven aggressive sisters are always on his case about personal matters, treating him like a 9-year-old.

Feeling lonely, he answers a phone-sex ad that leads him to trouble in the form of a character played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. And then Watson shows up, giving him a reason to care. But he has miles to schlep before he can shed his schlemiel skin.

Anderson keeps the plates spinning in ever more complicated and intriguing combinations. Much of the delight comes in the details of his visual and aural touches. Cars and trucks become instruments of impending danger. Ambient sound is magnified to become a presence all by itself, alongside Jon Brion's score. Again, Anderson employs a single song to great effect at a key point in the film. Certain scenes are saturated with color, sometimes in the abstract.

And then there is Sandler's performance, saturated with the kind of depth he has never had the chance to display. The proof may lie in parallel scenes of the kind of latent violence we have seen from him before. In one, he tears up a bathroom out of frustration. In another, he aggressively stands up to a threat from which he had previously run, before something awakened his inner strength -- no wonder it's called punch-drunk love.

Those who give in to the movie's idiosyncrasies may emerge from it punch-drunk with glee.

Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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