Paul Thomas Anderson, the would-be Altman without the madman-genius baggage getting in the way, has forever ruined Adam Sandler. No longer will Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, Little Nicky, the Waterboy, Big Daddy--or whatever moronic icon he seems to be playing this week--again be allowed to grace the big screen by finally and furiously tearing it apart, shred by tiny shred. His temper tantrums will no longer amuse; his mania will no longer matter. With Punch-Drunk Love, Anderson, recently of dawdling and epic constructs set in his beloved San Fernando Valley, has written for Sandler a tiny movie--a love letter, perhaps, or maybe a "Dear John" note to all he was and can't ever be again--that renders him whisper and scream, that gives depth to his superficiality and sadness to his madness.
The filmmaker has whittled Sandler down to his essential, freakish core: the coward with the molten innards, a goofy, inconsequential little man whose thin veneer of "normalcy" barely masks the freak, and freak out, within. There's nothing at all remarkable about Sandler's Barry Egan, a peddler of novelty toilet plungers in the Valley and collector of puddings with frequent-flier redemption coupons, which makes him all the more heroic; this is a man who will literally back himself in a corner--in his bright, barren warehouse--and when he comes out swinging it's with arms and legs and ears and eyes and elbows and ass akimbo. He's Clark Kent in a ridiculously royal-blue suit (which he never takes off) without need of secret identity, because Barry Egan is invisible most of the time. Not even his workers, among them Anderson regular Luis Guzman, know what to make of him. He's a doofus, yes, but one they take seriously; they sense within him something odd, something a little dangerous, and they've little interest in providing him the match to spark the fuse.
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Barry's seven sisters have no problem with that; they're mean-spirited, only pretending to be affectionate. They goad him into a rage--by, say, torturing him with recollections of the time they called him "Gay Boy"--and are genuinely surprised and appalled when he kicks out one sister's wall of windows. Their suffocating "love" for Barry has rendered him almost retarded when it comes to the attentions and affections of other women; in his 30s, his sole outlet for sexual gratification comes from a 1-900 sex line, which offers him not release but disappointment and, finally, real danger (from Philip Seymour Hoffman) when the woman on the other line demands more than $3.99 per minute.
Barry finds his way--and his heart--only when he meets a woman as phobic and anesthetized as he, Lena (Emily Watson), who wanted to meet Barry only after seeing his picture. That's explanation enough for how screwed-up she is, because what woman would pick Sandler out of a lineup for dating purposes (save, perhaps, the blind Emily Watson in Red Dragon)? Their neuroses complement each other: Hand in hand, she leads him outside of the Valley's shadow--all the way, in fact, to the bright sunshine of Waikiki--while he rescues her, as well, from a life as anonymous as the apartment complex-cum-maze in which she's trapped herself. And we know they're destined for one another when they finally make love--and reveal a hidden kink within each other others might find a bit, well, troublesome.
What makes the film remarkable isn't how linear and restrained it is--for Anderson, anyway, who's often so impressed with himself he doesn't know where or how to edit himself--but how surprisingly moving it becomes in spots. When Barry confesses to his brother-in-law (Robert Smigel) he goes on endless crying jags without any reason, and then breaks down without any warning, Sandler cuts us to the bone. In any of his other movies, this scene would be played for cheap, stupid laughs--one more Sandler convulsion, devoid of any meaning or merit. But because Barry knows he's screwed-up, because he doesn't know why and because he wants to be "normal," we feel for him; Anderson and Sandler treat him with empathy and care, not the contempt with which other filmmakers have approached "the Adam Sandler character."
For the first time, we don't just stare at Sandler, don't just giggle or roll our eyes when he begins busting up bathrooms and punching holes into Sheetrock. We feel for him when he does these things, because, blessedly and finally, he gives us someone to feel for; there's a reason for his actions, an explanation for his torment. He's not just a man-child acting up for laughs, but a prisoner in his own skin acting out. And so, at long last, the sketch comic gives us someone worthy of his own movie; at long last, the pretentious, ambitious writer-director of Boogie Nights and Magnolia gives us a film worthy of his acclaim. Anderson and Sandler were meant for each other, and their romance is, unbelievably, our reward.