Question: how do you match Magnolia? Answer: you don't even try. Wisely avoiding the temptation to believe his own hype and let loose the ego - - this could have been four hours of speed-freak camerawork with 72 characters colliding and crying - - Paul Thomas Anderson has hit the `downsize' button.
Punch-Drunk Love is a romantic comedy. It's 95 minutes long. It stars Adam Sandler. And yet it's surely, unmistakably, a PT Anderson movie, bristling with invention, bulging with surprises and bruised through with anguish. It's not, safe to say, your everyday soppy flick.
Sandler plays Barry Egan, a nervous executive who deals in novelty toiletries. He doesn't deal in people. Watching Barry interact with colleagues, customers and his seven interfering sisters is like watching a recoiling bat held up to the sun. Barry survives by presenting himself as a mumbly man-child, acting little-boy-lost to anyone who pins him with their gaze. In reality, he's a mangled time bomb, the dangling wires frequently setting off explosions of rage.
You've got to hand it to Anderson. Punch-Drunk Love takes Sandler's shouty schtick and bends it to the director's needs, playing the actor's trademark outbursts for shock, not thrills. You also have to hand it to Sandler, who delivers a measured, intricate performance built from the wounded core out. Watching Sandler smash the shit out of a restaurant restroom isn't the same as seeing him snap golf clubs in Happy Gilmore or take out the drinks cooler in The Waterboy. Here, it's rooted in psychosis; any laughs it inspires are nervous ones.
Anderson's script then takes this `hero' and places him in all manner of combustible situations: a phone-sex scam that leads to an electric showdown with a typically seedy Philip Seymour Hoffman; a birthday party replete with fussing sisters and the unwelcome glare of attention; and, most potent of all, a burgeoning love affair with Emily Watson's sweet-but-scarred Lena. It is, of course, no ordinary romance - Barry croons: '"I love you so much I want to smash your face in with a sledgehammer'." Lena replies: "'I love you so much I want to rip out your eyeballs and suck on them'."
Just as unique is the director's decision to play his movie slow and woozy. You'd imagine an Anderson rom-com, however dark, to be as playful as a puppy, scampering from one trick to the next. Instead it strolls at its own languid pace, challenging the viewer to share its patience - - run ahead and you'll get lost, because this sure as hell doesn't follow a set plot path. Likewise, Anderson's persistent use of music aims to test your endurance, never more so than when he unleashes a 10-minute burst of percussion to communicate Barry's throbbing panic.
Punch-Drunk Love is a beast so rare it was long thought mythical: a must-see Adam Sandler movie.