For those wondering whether Punch-Drunk Love is a Paul Thomas Anderson movie or an Adam Sandler movie, the answer is that P.T. is the far more domineering presence on screen even though Mr. Anderson never makes a personal appearance. All that remains of Sandler’s usual proudly immature, smug, smarmy persona is the arrested development. Meanwhile, the movie is all the standard P.T. Anderson flashy style and blaring soundtrack.The teaming of the blockbuster Saturday Night Live alum and the flamboyant indie filmmaker is not as odd as it might seem. For all of Anderson’s ambition in Boogie Nights and Magnolia, he is essentially a juvenile style-over-substance provocateur, a description that could just as easily fit Sandler.Of course, Sandler makes no pretension of being anything other than he is, a lowbrow pop comic milking his adolescent-minded fan base for as long as he can. The real odd couple here is Sandler and Emily Watson, who together are about as romantically convincing as Julia Roberts and Lyle Lovett.
The story follows toilet-plunger vender Barry Egan (Sandler) who lives in Sherman Oaks, California. He is plagued by seven overbearing sisters, one of whom (Mary Lynn Rajskub) tries to set Barry up with her British friend, Lena Leonard (Watson). Barry, at first resistant, becomes open to Lena after meeting her, but his sister Elizabeth’s relentless criticism of him to Lena sends him over the edge. Barry suffers from deficiencies in social interaction and also has anger management issues.Instead of seeing a psychiatrist, he tries to find solace by calling a phone sex operator, but she turns around and tries to blackmail him with the aid of Dean Trumbell (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his thugs made up of four blond brothers (the real-life Stevens siblings).While all this is going on, Barry also dreams up a scheme in which he can inexpensively rack up frequent flyer miles by buying Healthy Choice pudding in a special promotion.The loads of pudding piled up next to an abandoned harmonium Barry saved from oncoming traffic only increases his sister’s worries over him.
All this doesn’t add up to much though other than P.T. Anderson being quirky. One wonders whether Anderson is intentionally trying to make the movie grating. He returns to a variation on his firecracker trick in Boogie Nights by inserting loud bangs (whether it be from a car wreck or a door slam) in the soundtrack every so often to keep the audience on edge.It is still a cheap effect.Anderson’s style seems to work so hard screaming “Look at me!” that the filmmaking becomes annoying.Other filmmakers like the Coen brothers show a very deliberate style, but they match it to the material. Anderson’s style, such as it is, overwhelms content.
A lot of this has to do with Sandler not being a real actor.Barry always feels like an artificial construct, and his “acting” goes against the grain of Watson’s naturalism.Everything works on a slick, stylistic surface level, not an emotional one despite all of Sandler’s outbursts. In lieu of crafting real poignancy, Anderson substitutes songs. The Harry Nilsson-written “He Needs Me” sung by Shelley Duvall from Robert Altman’s Popeye is almost idiosyncratic enough to work, but that’s only a few minutes of the movie’s overall length. Anderson piles on the music and the background noise so much that in some scenes the dialogue is barely audible.Ultimately, this tale of redemption for the social misfit, this runt who wouldn’t take it anymore, is a half-baked, unfunny narrative, an empty exercise in style that will please no one but the most devout followers of P.T.