For his fourth film Punch Drunk Love, director P.T.
Anderson once again engages in the kind of seemingly audacious
stunt casting that has become his trademark. The trend started
of course with Boogie Nights, a serious film starring
Burt Reynolds and ďMarky MarkĒ Wahlberg,
then carried on to Magnolia where All American boy
Tom Cruise played misogynist Dr. Phil. The strategy
worked like a charm, generating massive build-up for two low-budget,
three-hour films about emotionally damaged losers.
Now once again Anderson offers an unlikely roleómeek, novelty
plunger salesmanóto an unlikely choiceóking of lowbrow comedy,
Adam Sandler. Although really, Sandler isnít truly
playing against type, even if this is a very different type
of film; heís Barry Egan, a clueless schlub with a good heart.
As Barry, Sandler may break down and cry, but he also indulges
in some of his tried-and-true antics. He curses like a child,
and even gets to beat up some white trash meanies. So I feel
confident in saying that while Sandler may be right for the
part, nothing about his performance suggests the birth of
Adam Sandler, serious actor. Which is good, because a revelation
like that would make me question everything Iíd ever known
or believed in, and frankly I havenít got that kind of time.
And when you really think about it none of the actors in those
other films were really stretching that much either. Weíd
all seen the sleazy side of Reynolds before, Cruise just did
a spiteful variant on his cocky í80s routine, and if he hadnít
somehow found his way into the mainstream, itís more than
likely Marky Mark would have ended up in porn for real. (Note
to Wahlberg fans: HE CANíT ACT, I donít care what anyone says,
he only has like three facial expressions.) Anderson provides
a different context for his stars, but he never really subverts
their image, as, say, Sergio Leone did when he had
Henry Fonda play a vicious killer in Once Upon A
Time In The West.
So as I was saying, Sandler turns out to be surprisingly
adequate, and Anderson is at the top of his game. His movie
is a collection of confounding, but brilliantly belabored
set pieces. Barry Egan often seems to go through emotional
jump cuts, exploding with little build up; like many of Andersonís
characters heís damaged and constantly on the edge of a breakdown.
Heís belittled by his seven sisters, and heís suckered into
a blackmailing scheme thatís contingent on his shame and timidity.
Not everythingís going wrong for him though. Heís figured
out a flaw in a promotional contest that will allow him to
amass a lifetimeís worth of frequent flyer miles simply by
buying enough pudding, and he also finds a kind of unconditional
love with a friend of his sisters, Lena (Watson). As
played by Watson, Lena is cipher offering salvation, heralded
by a mysterious omen; she comes into Barryís life already
prepared to love him, all he has to do is reach out for her.
Punch Drunk Love has a rhythm and an internal logic
that seem to mirror the fractured psyche of its main character.
Instead of just humming along, it gets worked up, it jumps,
and at times it breaks down. It actually resembles a demented
musical because Barry seems to be internally queued to the
alternately frantic and swooning music of composer Jon
Brion Anderson. Certainly, P.T. Andersonís style isnít
for everyone, and Iím saying this as someone who thought Boogie
Nights and Magnolia were overrated. He delights
in thwarting expectations and his films tend to be disjointed
and self-conscious to the point of being annoying. Punch
Drunk Love doesnít really break from those tendencies,
but perhaps as a result of using a single protagonist Anderson
finally finds a story consistent enough for his craft to take