If nothing else, Paul Thomas Anderson will be remembered for his hubris. First he shamelessly apes Scorsese and Altman in his overstuffed and overrated Boogie Nights and Magnolia, and now he has decided he's going to be the guy who taught Adam Sandler how to act.
Frankly, I had no real doubts that Sandler could put in a good performance if he wanted to. Considering the trademark stupidity of his comedies, he gives those movies exactly what they ask of him. And although I am no fan of Anderson's previous work, I still recall many good moments in his films and hadn't yet relegated him to the dustbin of pretentious filmmakers. Nevertheless, I was more pleased than I thought I would be with Punch-Drunk Love.
Sandler stars as Barry Egan, a lonely loser who works at a warehouse selling kitsch and who is constantly belittled by his seven abusive sisters. Resigned to mumbling and lying whenever the conversation gets personal, he also has a propensity for erupting into violent outbursts, smashing up windows or bathrooms in times of stress.
Barry eventually finds meaning in his life when his closest sister Elizabeth (played by Mary Lynn Rajskub, who, by the way, stars in my film Claustrophobia and is a really nice person) sets him up with her coworker Lela (Emily Watson), who for some inexplicable reason has long been interested in him. (To buy the amazing Watson being attracted to a doofus like Sandler, you have to suspend the same disbelief you needed to when Christina Ricci fell for the scuzzy Vincent Gallo in Buffalo 66.) Together they embark on a fragile, nervous romance. And call me crazy, but it's one of the purest, loveliest romances I have seen in recent American film – though admittedly, that's not saying much.
Once Anderson gets over the more self-conscious moments of quirkiness at the beginning of the film – a sudden car crash, a stranger depositing a harmonium on the sidewalk, an impromptu psychedelic light show – and settles into developing his characters, his film shines. There's even an effective subplot involving a well-meaning call to a phone sex operator which pulls Barry into a paranoid nightmare that will scare you away from dialing a 900 number forever.
Some critics have mentioned a lack of chemistry between Sandler and Watson, but in my book, Watson has so much chemistry with the camera that you don't even notice whether she and Sandler make a good couple. Anyway, by redeeming his broken, self-loathing hero with nothing less than the power of love, Paul Thomas Anderson redeems his own integrity as a storyteller. I am cautious to out-and-out recommend Punch-Drunk Love, as it is definitely a weird film that will turn off as many people as it enchants. But speaking as one of the film's more unexpected converts, I find myself liking it the more I think about it.