Memo to Adam Sandler: Don’t start clearing out shelf space for an Oscar just yet. Or even a Golden Globe. Okay, maybe an American Comedy Award is definitely within reach, but none of the big boys. Not even a People’s Choice Award, for it’s doubtful his latest project’s extreme quirks will allow for much mainstream success.
This is not to say that Sandler isn’t effective in “Punch-Drunk Love,” which has been riding a wave of acclaim and anticipation since premiering in Cannes this past May. But contrary to what early notices would leave one to believe, Sandler isn’t exactly doing much stretching here: eccentric, soft-spoken guy prone to out-of-nowhere, drop-of-a-hat outbursts of anger? It’s a persona upon which Sandler’s built his entire career, so it’s not terribly surprising that the character of sad-sack salesman Barry Egan fits Sandler so comfortably.
The big difference between this and other Sandler vehicles is the man behind the camera: none other than maverick auteur Paul Thomas Anderson, who wrote the film especially for Sandler. Anderson took home the directing prize at Cannes, and his work is indeed the truly noteworthy accomplishment about the film. Sandler may be literally front and center for most of the film’s lean 97 minutes, but Anderson’s uniquely warped sensibilities are strongly felt in every little detail from first frame to last, and by making him part of such an unusual, unpredictable context, that familiar Sandler persona feels fresh and funny.
The story is both simple and amazingly convoluted, a reflection of the film itself. On the most basic level, it’s about how a charming young woman (Emily Watson) is able to penetrate Barry’s shyness and compel him to live life a little, well, punch-drunk. But leaving it at that would then mean leaving out all that makes the viewers’ heads spin with delight: Barry’s seven deadly sisters, phone sex extortionists, a mysteriously dropped-off harmonium, and a pudding-for-frequent-flyer-miles scheme. Perhaps most surprising of all is Watson and her disarming incandescence; she’s the real revelation here, not Sandler, showing just why she was Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s original casting of her as Amélie wasn’t quite so oddball after all.
The surface simplicity also masks the complexity and absurdity of Anderson’s vision, from Barry’s electric blue suit and the starkness and size of his warehouse workplace to the propulsive percussion of Jon Brion’s score and the loopy use of an off-key ditty from Robert Altman’s infamous movie musical of “Popeye” as the central love theme. Anderson is simply punch-drunk on the possibilities of cinema, and sophisticated film lovers will be more than willing to go wherever he goes–yes, even to an Adam Sandler movie.