CANNES 2002 REVIEW: High and Low Culture; P.T. Anderson and Adam Sandler Team For "Punch-Drunk Love"
by Peter Brunette
(indieWIRE/05.22.02) -- Whoever first uttered the classic maxim "of taste there is no disputing" might have said the same thing about comedy. Thus, Paul Thomas Anderson's new film, "Punch-Drunk Love," is sure to have its partisans, but I think it is safe to say that they will be few in number. Coming on the heels of such ragged near-masterpieces as "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia," "Punch-Drunk Love" is, to this critic at least, a major disappointment. At 94 minutes, it's obviously meant to be a mere bagatelle, a rest-stop on the way to something grander, and Anderson is to be congratulated for even conceptualizing this erratic encounter with the mainstream comic Adam Sandler. Furthermore, it's a gutsy amalgam of high and low culture -- itself perhaps the essence of the post-modern -- and is thus to be applauded on the grounds of ambition alone. The film does have its humorous moments now and then, but unfortunately, the film will not please Sandler's fan base because it's too weird, and won't be liked by the indie crowd either because there's simply too little there.
Sandler plays a nerdy small-business owner named Barry Egan who's given to buying carloads of Healthy Choice pudding in order to amass frequent-flier miles, convinced that he is getting the better of the deal. (This part of the story was inspired by a real man named David Phillips, who received 1.25 million miles after spending $3000 on pudding.) Barry cries frequently for no reason and often unleashes a sudden stream of violence, usually privately, on whatever inanimate object is nearby. He doesn't know how he's supposed to act and confesses at one point that he has no idea "what other people are like," and hence has no basis for comparison. He's also afflicted by seven sisters, with assorted husbands and children, who constantly nag him about his lack of a girlfriend, which he of course hasn't the slightest idea how to go about obtaining. A mysterious woman named Lena Leonard (Emily Watson) -- who, underneath it all is as deeply weird as he is -- finally comes on the scene, and the rest of the film plays like a self-conscious post-modern parody of the romantic comedy genre.
The other major plot thread is the telephone scam that Barry gets caught up in when he innocently calls a phone sex line. Once the Utah-based scam artist and mattress salesman Dean Trumbell (played Philip Seymour Hoffman, who's been in all of Anderson's films), has his credit card information, he doesn't want to let Barry go. Pursued by some hillbilly Mormon thugs sent by Trumbell, Barry decides to join Lena in Hawaii where they discover and profess their love.
From the very first shot, which is (purposely) awkwardly framed -- Barry's talking on the phone at a desk that is way over to the left, with an inordinate amount of empty space to the right -- Anderson announces that all things in the movie will be askew. Everything that follows is slightly off, as when a harmonium is dropped off on the street in front of his business, yet never really figures in the story. All of this tends to promote slight titters rather than guffaws, and for some titters will be more than enough. For the rest of us, though, things are simply not askew enough.
On the plus side, the movie has precise, offbeat comic timing in abundance, and Anderson and Sandler seem to have connected on their own ethereal wavelength. Also, the director's fabulous eye for the contemporary American landscape works occasional wonders. A tracking shot of the abundant, overflowing shelves of an American supermarket, or a simple exterior shot of the front of Trumbell's broken-down mattress store can provoke a sense of recognition that can lead to more profound thoughts. The weird lovers, while in Lena's hotel room in Hawaii, say passionate, deeply endearing things to each other like "You are so cute that I want to eat your eyeballs," or "You are so beautiful that I want to smash your face in."
Yet Barry is most frequently so inert -- though there's no doubt that Sandler is playing him to perfection -- that the film ends up feeling inert as well. In principle, the character is fascinating, but by definition he can't say anything fascinating, which presents a problem. Endless minutes are spent watching him walk or run down empty hallways. All too often, in fact, Anderson resorts to crude physical pratfalls in an apparently desperate attempt to generate a more vigorous laugh. When Philip Seymour Hoffman, as Barry's polar opposite, arrives belatedly on the scene, the film's voltage increases tenfold, merely through his obsessive repetition of the word "shut" (instead of "shut up") when he is trying to intimidate Barry over the phone.
In short, there's every evidence that "Punch-Drunk Love" will prove to be an acquired taste that will challenge even Anderson's titter-loving fans and bewilder Sandler's.