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What's become of the Waterboy?

Adam Sandler teams with acclaimed director Paul Thomas Anderson

Friday, October 25, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

TORONTO -- Inquiring minds wanted to know -- director Paul Thomas Anderson was making a film with Adam Sandler?

Adam Sandler stars as Barry Egan in the Revolution Studios/New Line Cinema presentation of Punch-Drunk Love. (Peter Sorel)

Review of 'Punch-Drunk Love'

Yes, and after the movie, "Punch-Drunk Love," was screened last month at the Toronto International Film Festival, the principals got to tell us firsthand what we wanted to know.

Just whatever possessed Anderson -- the maestro of "Magnolia," the brains behind "Boogie Nights" -- and Sandler, the master of meshugeh, to form what looked to be the most unlikely twosome since Eminem and Elton John?

"I just think he's wonderful," Anderson said. "I've always loved his movies. You think, who do you want to be around, who do you want to work with? But it's really, who do you want to be near? I always wanted to be near him. It's a dream come true."

But the admiration is mutual, and it began when Anderson sought out Sandler on the set of one of his films. They got along well enough that Sandler made a point of seeing "Magnolia" a few days later.

"I remember calling him up right after I walked out and saying, 'I've never seen anything like that before. Is that what we're planning on doing together?' " the funnyman said.

And so it began, the process of fitting Adam Sandler into a Paul Thomas Anderson film and having the essence of both men come through.

Sandler plays Barry Egan, owner of a small business, a man besieged by his seven sisters who are constantly smothering him with advice, criticism, concern and condescension. Looking for love in at least one wrong place, he calls a phone-sex line and arouses only trouble. Meanwhile, one of the sisters introduces him to Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), and Barry's search for romance careens through a series of unexpected turns.

Most people would consider this a departure for Sandler, best known for his lowbrow comedies about innocent goofs who occasionally take out their frustrations by pummeling someone (his fists get dirty in this one, too, as it turns out).

"I think a departure means I'm moving on from something. I don't know how to describe what I think I did. I did a movie with a guy who I think is an incredible filmmaker, and I played a role he wrote for me that I thought was a great part and would be a challenge for me to do, but something I thought I could actually do.

"In no way do I want to say I'm giving up making a certain kind of movie. I love making the movies I've made in the past. At the same time, this experience was incredible and I want to continue to challenge myself."

And he wants to work with Anderson again.

"I've never seen anybody work as hard as him and think about every aspect of the movie," Sandler said. "He saw it all in his head. Musically, he saw it all in his head. I would see Paul at the monitor watching scenes play back and he would be humming stuff that he knew the score would be. I've never seen anything like it."

Director Paul Thomas Anderson and Adam Sandler talk about "Punch-Drunk Love" last month at the Toronto International Film Festival. (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette)

Anderson returned the compliment.

"Adam's very funny. Anything he does he can make funny very fast. When he gets mad, it can be so honest and scary that maybe it's funny, too."

"Punch-Drunk Love" is a bit of departure for Anderson as well, who has become known for his sprawling ensemble pieces about various kinds of extended families.

What drew him to writing and directing this particular story?

"Being tired of being around so many people," he said. "And just to [expletive] yourself up and scare yourself a little. But really, the story that was in my mind that I wanted to tell was a very specific story about two people."

But Anderson can get pretty riled up at any attempt to put labels on his movie or to consider such matters as whether it will expand his star's horizons or his audience.

"I don't know. I think that if you go thinking about that stuff for too long, you can crawl up your own ass and you get so confused about what really is going on.

"The only reason you have to call [the movie] a romantic comedy is because there are people who think you have to call it something. What's the [expletive] point of calling it anything?

"It's a good movie and a movie that we love and I'm very proud of it," Anderson said. "You want to find how people can see it in the best circumstances possible. You operate from there and have faith in that. And you don't concern yourself with the other stuff that much."

"Punch-Drunk Love" is earning Sandler his best notices, not that he has ever been a critic's darling -- as the former "Saturday Night Live" comic found out the hard way after the 1995 release of "Billy Madison," the first film in which he had the starring role.

"I was thinking, 'This will be fun when it comes out. They actually write stuff about you,' " he related. "That morning, I woke up and I'm like, 'Oh, man, I didn't know they were going to come at me and hate me and hate what I was doing.

"I know in my heart I've worked hard trying to make funny movies. I believe in my movies," he said. "When I was 17, getting into this, I didn't say I want to make movies one day that critics will respect. I wanted to make movies that would be like what Eddie Murphy movies did for me when I was growing up."

Asked to analyze the popularity of his characters, Sandler begged off.

"I can't sum it up. Who I am in real life, I don't even know who the hell that is. I don't say, when we're working on a script, I want to play a big-hearted doofus. I usually say, when I have a movie I think is pretty funny and I'm playing the lead guy, I want him to make sense to the idea of the movie."

And now that the critics are saying nice things about him?

"I'm glad my father can read something about me and say, 'Hey, you're all right.'"


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

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