Punch Drunk Love

If they’re lucky, most comedians, like fine wine, mature with time. Jim Carrey quit talking out of his butt and went on to high acclaim for his performances in “The Truman Show” and “The Majestic.” Robin Williams parlayed his frenetic stand-up comedy into powerful dramatic turns in “Good Will Hunting,” “Insomnia” and “One Hour Photo.”

Now comes comedian Adam Sandler’s dramatic debut in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch Drunk Love,” and like both Carrey and Williams, I always knew that Sandler had it in him. Most of Sandler’s crazy characters have an endearing side to them, so a leap to full-fledged drama wasn’t that far.

There’s much to like in “Punch Drunk Love,” an unexpected romantic drama from Anderson, whose previous films “Magnolia,” “Boogie Nights” and “Hard Eight” were hardly cause to smile. Anderson is a master of excavating the layers of life that obstruct his character’s inner truth, but nothing in his first three films prepared us for “Punch Drunk Love,” a sweet, frequently erratic drama filled with many simple comic moments.

As writer, Anderson isn’t so much concerned with jokes as how funny the human condition can be exploited. The characters in “Punch Drunk Love” are funny because they become real to us, and life in general is pretty funny. No one here is mugging for the camera.

Sandler stars as Barry Egan, a Southern California plunger salesman whose seven overbearing sisters won’t let him forget the fact that he’s single. Egan obviously has issues with women, and is prone to erratic outbursts of violent behavior. Most people come with baggage, Egan comes with his own baggage car.

He’s not just lonely, he’s desperately lonely. What can you say about a man who makes plungers for a living and finds joy in taking advantage of an airline promotion that offers free miles in exchange for buying certain products.

Not much, according to his sisters, who still call him “gay boy” from his youth and try to set him up on blind dates. We’re never told where Egan’s anger comes from, but even a rookie detective would point a finger at the sisters, who henpeck Egan until every last inch of his self-esteem is gone. Only sister Elizabeth (Mary Lynn Rajskub) seems to care about Egan, and reluctantly sets him up with co-worker Lena (Emily Watson).

On the road of rocky relationships, Egan and Lena hit every speed bump and pothole that Anderson can throw in front of them, forcing the characters to examine their lives. Watson is so sweet and unassuming as Lena that you want to protect her from Egan’s violent side, yet you also want Egan to overcome his anxieties and frustrations in order to appreciate the gift of Lena’s love. Watching Sandler and Watson slowly, carefully fall in love is just one of the many pleasures of “Punch Drunk Love.”

This film isn’t as grandiose as either “Boogie Nights” or “Magnolia,” but that’s part of the its charm. Anderson has always been a daring director, but casting Sandler as Egan makes perfect sense. Sandler perfectly embodies the spirit of a man who lacks spirit. Even though Egan claims he’s on the right track, both he and we know that he’s wasting his potential.

Sandler displays the inner conflict with a wide range of emotions that engage and sometimes frighten us. We delight in his character’s ability to outwit a large corporation, but also recoil when Egan can’t control his anger. Sandler scales those emotions with the precision of an accomplished dramatic actor.

Watson is delightful as Lena, a well-traveled woman who is smart enough to see beyond Egan’s shyness. Lena is so patient and understanding that not only do we like her, we want to climb up on the screen and hug her for being such a great person. The emotional tango that Lena and Egan engage in allows both actors to rise to the top of their game.

On the sidelines, Anderson regulars Luis Guzman and Philip Seymour Hoffman are good as usual. Guzman plays Egan’s assistant, who sees the stress that his boss is under, while Hoffman plays the proprietor of a sex phone line that Egan calls and later regrets.

Anderson’s talent as a writer is developing characters who don’t just live within the frame. The characters in “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia” were so vivid it was hard to shake them. Anderson’s talent as a director is to give his characters (and actors) room to breathe and grow, and by the time “Punch Drunk Love” ends, we feel as though we have spent quality time with these people.

DRUNK WITH LOVE Adam Sandler takes dramatic plunge in “Punch”


Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Luis Guzman. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Rated R. 98 Minutes.


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