Love on the brink of chaos

Paul Thomas Anderson's strange and marvelous "Punch-Drunk Love" turns Adam Sandler into a leading man -- and brings the sweetness of romantic comedy to an alienated age.

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Love on the brink of chaos

Walking out of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch-Drunk Love” I was certain of only two things: that I had no idea what I’d just seen, and that I wanted to see it again right away. By turns irritating, strange, and finally entrancing, “Punch-Drunk Love” is something we haven’t seen before: a manic-depressive romantic comedy that aspires to the soul of a musical. It’s a new-fashioned love song.

It’s also Anderson’s attempt to work on a smaller, less defined scale than he did in his multi-character epics “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia.” The inspiration and touchstone for those films was the ’70s work of Robert Altman, particularly “Nashville.” Anderson’s movies had the same huge appetite for character and incident, the need to keep encompassing more, to keep bringing new people into the party. But where Altman has always had a gambler’s faith in chance, Anderson, the most ambitious young filmmaker in contemporary American movies, works in a precise, controlled manner.

Anderson may believe in chance, but until now he has never left much to it. You could see that in his debut, the marvelous neo-noir “Hard Eight.” It was, for a first movie, almost frighteningly disciplined. And you could see it even amid the sprawl of the movies that followed. The extended tracking shot that opened “Boogie Nights,” introducing almost all of the major characters in the process, was a wonderful contradiction, bravura filmmaking that orchestrated each flourish, each swoop and glide of the camera.

Anderson must have realized there was nowhere to go from “Magnolia” but into gigantism. So how does a filmmaker with his degree of ambition and need for control scale things down and free himself up? That seems to be the question that Anderson is asking himself throughout “Punch-Drunk Love,” and part of the excitement of the movie comes from the way he wrestles with it. In some ways, he hasn’t changed. Though the film is essentially a modest two-hander with a running time of 89 minutes, it’s shot in widescreen Panavision, and the framing of each shot, the hard-edged yet diffuse light of the San Fernando Valley as captured in Robert Elswit’s cinematography, is as meticulous as anything Anderson has done.

So is Christopher Scarabosio’s sound design, which veers on a dime from silence to bursts of chaotic noise. Jon Brion’s score, dominated by a wheezing harmonium, is layered under the action so that it swells like a wave slowly gathering devastating force. Because of the small scale of the story Anderson is telling here, the control he exerts is even more apparent.

What gives “Punch-Drunk Love” its thrilling and often unsettling aura of uncertainty is that from moment to moment there’s no telling what will happen. Befitting the true spirit of romantic comedy, it’s a movie where the characters teeter right on the edge of disaster. Even when they find their footing, there’s no assurance that the ground beneath their feet will remain stable.

Right from the start the opportunity exists here for both discord and harmony. In the opening sequence, a car driving down a Valley street flips over for no apparent reason, and seconds later a taxi deposits a battered harmonium at the curb. (A harmonium is that rinky-dink little second cousin of the piano and the organ, and indeed nobody in the movie is ever quite sure what to call it.) As the movie’s hero, Barry Egan, Adam Sandler carries the expectation of impending disaster in every inch of his lanky, lumbering frame.

A wholesaler of novelty bathroom supplies working out of a cavernous Valley warehouse, Barry exists in a nearly mute state of perpetual tentativeness. He has only the most minimal exchanges with his business partner Lance (Luis Guzmán), and when he has to make a sales pitch to a couple of prospective clients, you feel as if it’s taking every ounce of his energy to keep up the patter. Making a call to a phone-sex line, Barry answers the operator’s provocations with single syllables and yawning silences.

He’s not much more comfortable at a family party for the birthday of one of his seven sisters. With aggression that they try to pass off as kidding affection, the sisters use Barry as their whipping boy while he stands around awkwardly, taking their teasing. (This sequence is remarkable. No previous movie has ever captured in quite this way how the controlled chaos of family gatherings can make you feel like everyone is claiming a piece of you.) Barry doesn’t even seem at ease when he’s alone, obsessively clipping bar codes from pudding containers to cash in for frequent-flyer miles, even though he has no intention of traveling anywhere.

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Sandler’s performance has already been talked about as if it were a turn in a silent comedy. But the great silent comics didn’t have the expectation of speech; their faces and bodies were their means of expression. Sandler’s performance is instead about the agony of Barry’s inarticulateness, his stunted desire to connect and communicate, and his inability to define his free-floating pain. In one scene Barry approaches his brother-in-law, the only medical professional he knows, for help. “I don’t like myself very much,” he says. “Can you help me?”

It’s a piercing scene, on the surface a comic moment (his brother-in-law is a dentist) — but only on the surface. There is a raw helplessness in Sandler that lifts this big child-man above being a figure of fun. The impact of the scene depends entirely on our ability to believe in Sandler as a soul in torment, and he pulls it off smashingly. It’s an amazing performance.

And it draws on what Anderson must have sensed in Sandler’s screen persona. At times he has seemed like a gargantuan gnome, specializing in the mumbling misfits and arrested dimwits who were Jerry Lewis’ stock in trade. But Lewis, courting the audience’s sympathy, played sweet. And Sandler has always carried the threat of sudden, bellowing, red-faced rage. (Think of the moment in “The Wedding Singer” when he harangues a marriage reception with a screaming, hoarse-voiced cover of “Love Stinks.”) Those moments come in “Punch-Drunk Love” as well, and they’re the most startling, disturbing and, finally, in Barry’s ultimate outburst, the most elating in the movie. There’s no phony Chaplin pathos in Sandler’s performance, none of the self-love or elfin dearness that comics in dramatic roles often resort to in order to manipulate an audience’s affections.

Essentially, Sandler is giving the kind of performance that won praise for Björk’s masochistic pixie routine in “Dancer in the Dark” and for Emmanuel Schotté’s ludicrous nonperformance in “Humanité.” Unlike those, Sandler’s performance isn’t a stunt. He does something very difficult, working as an actor to articulate Barry’s painful lack of articulation. Sandler never sentimentalizes Barry, even when the character finally has something to lose.

That something is Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), a young woman who works with one of Barry’s sisters and who has fallen in love with him. Anderson doesn’t explain why, but he doesn’t treat Lena’s feelings for Barry as a conceit, either. “Punch-Drunk Love” is about the inexplicable, life-changing nature of unexpected connections, and Anderson doesn’t try to shortchange the power of romance by offering an explanation for it. (Bertrand Blier never did that in his romantic comedies, either.) In both execution and subject, “Punch-Drunk Love” speaks to Anderson’s faith in the way odd matches can make perfect sense, not just in terms of the collaboration between him and Sandler but of the onscreen collaboration between Sandler and Watson as well.

Watching the two leads connect here is like watching milk make its way through the loopy course of a Silly Straw. Watson isn’t just Barry’s ray of sunshine, she’s the movie’s. Her role and her whole demeanor — those kewpie-doll eyes and the sweetheart face that carries its own romantic comedy lineage — suggest the sylph-like lovelies of 1930s musicals. When she’s onscreen you half expect a baritone to break into “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?”

But Watson doesn’t have the breathless girlishness you associate with those roles. She combines a bright-eyed expectation with the sureness of a woman who knows what she wants. Unlike Barry, Lena isn’t desperate. But, like him, she’s looking to carve a place for herself amidst the anonymity of the movie’s workplaces and apartments, and even the anonymity of the never-changing Los Angeles blue skies. In the movie’s dreamy midsection, when Barry follows Lena to Hawaii, Watson and Sandler, along with the whole movie, seem to be swaying to a lazy, love-drenched rhythm.

Even amid the threat of violence and the movie’s riffs on urban alienation, Anderson gives “Punch-Drunk Love” something of the idealization of musical comedy. It proceeds more by poetic than narrative logic. That’s a problem in one of the movie’s subplots, in which Barry is being blackmailed by an unscrupulous phone-sex mogul (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and is chased by the mogul’s goons, four hulking brothers (played by four real-life brothers, David, Jimmy, Nathan and Mike Stevens); no actual criminal could be as dumb as Hoffman’s character is. But that part of the story also functions as the sort of threat that, in idealized comedies and musicals, can make the possibility of loss even more acute. (There’s a heart-stopping moment when you fear Lena may be in danger.)

The electric blue suit that Sandler wears throughout the film was, according to Anderson, inspired by a similar suit in Vincente Minnelli’s great movie musical “The Band Wagon.” But there’s an association with another famous movie suit: the dark blue one worn by Cary Grant in “North by Northwest.” As Grant runs for his life across the country that suit becomes his armor, a merit badge for remaining dapper under stress. As “Punch-Drunk Love” moves from L.A. to Oahu to Utah and then back where it began, Barry’s suit functions in the same way for Sandler. Like it, he’s true blue. Like the interpolated montages of swirling color by the artist Jeremy Blake, the neon blue of that suit stands for Barry’s emotional blossoming. He earns the right to wear it, and so does Sandler.

Appearing at a press conference after a New York Film Festival showing of “Punch-Drunk Love,” Anderson told the assembled press that he wanted to treat the process of making the movie as if he were making an album. I think what he meant is that he didn’t want to be afraid to wing it, and certainly this movie feels less fussed over, less written, than any of his previous films. Anderson, who loves actors as much as any director working, trusts his two leads to get into the movie’s emotional groove and carry it forward; he trusts their silences and glances to speak as much as their words.

This step downward in scale is a step forward for Anderson in intuitiveness. How it will play with audiences is another question. The movie is likely to disgruntle those who go in expecting another Adam Sandler comedy, and it may be prejudged by critics and other moviegoers who can’t stand Sandler. (Nothing like giving a guy a chance, eh?) There has always been a streak of resentment in some of the reactions to Anderson’s movies. It could be due to the bigness of his work in an age of diminished expectations. Some older critics may regard Anderson’s naked desire to achieve the heights of ’70s American filmmaking — an era they feel proprietary about — as the mark of an upstart.

Perversely, it’s Anderson’s emotional openness that has fired up some of his loudest detractors. The idea that Anderson could portray a group of porn stars and filmmakers as a loving, dysfunctional family sent some critics into a hissy fit over “Boogie Nights” (even though many of the veterans of the golden age of porn talk about their experiences in just those terms). Perhaps the way that Anderson most resembles Altman is that his empathy and compassion are sometimes reduced by an affinity for sarcasm that borders on crassness, and there are moments when “Punch-Drunk Love” toys with that.

But Anderson’s movies, whatever their flaws, are never underfelt. He is a filmmaker who can have his hero say, as Barry says of Lena, “I have a love in my life now, and it gives me more strength than you could ever understand” without feeling the need to parody it or couch it in irony. The spirit of the classic American romantic comedies is far from the spirit of today’s prefab movie romances. Where today’s romantic comedies end on an assurance that everything will be fine from now on, the great romantic comedies were dedicated to taking risks. The lovers often felt more punch drunk than happy, but that was part of the deal. “Punch-Drunk Love” ends on a moment of quiet contentment, though it offers no guarantees for what lies ahead. And that may be the most heartening thing about it.

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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