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2002, dir. P.T. Anderson
95 min. Rated R.
Starring: Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, Luis Guzmán.

Review by Noel Wood

PUNCH DRUNK LOVE is such a fitting little title for this film, the latest offering from MAGNOLIA auteur P.T. Anderson. Basically, on the level of a love story, this film hits the nail right on the head.

It's not often that a film gets love right. Most of Hollywood's so-called "love stories" involved far-fetched, fairy-tale stories about people who are 99 percent perfect, but have that one tragic flaw they have to overcome in order to win the heart of their admiree. In reality, stories like this don't happen. Love is rarely pretty. People are flawed, and so are their relationships. There are only a handful of movies that I can think of that truly tell a great, realistic love story. Cameron Crowe's SAY ANYTHING is a prime example. In a way, so is the cult classic HAROLD AND MAUDE. But now, you can add PUNCH DRUNK LOVE to that short list.


First things first: If you want to see this movie because you really liked Adam Sandler in THE WATERBOY and MR. DEEDS, stay home. This isn't the latest play on the Billy-Madison-Happy-Gilmore character for Sandler. Granted, Anderson did write this film with Sandler in mind for the role of the lead, and there are some moments where he is decidedly Sandler, but for the most part, this is an honest dramatic performance for our star here.

This clever little film is based on the true story of Barry Egan, a novelty plunger entrepreneur, who one day stumbles onto a flaw in a promotional offer by Healthy Choice foods. Basically, he discovers that by purchasing just 3,000 dollars worth of pudding, he can get a million frequent flyer miles, basically giving him the ability to fly free for life. The problem is, Barry's never flown a day in his life, and really doesn't have any desire to. Barry's also the one brother in a nest of eight children, and his seven sisters have a tendency to give him a hard time whenever possible. Barry's not the brightest bulb on the tree, and seems to have a few emotional problems that sometimes result in violent fits and uncontrollable crying. His life seems to be bleak, lonely, and meaningless. And all he wants is someone who will listen to him, in confidence.


Unfortunately for Barry, he makes the innocent mistake of calling a phone sex operator to be that person, after being ridiculed for asking his brother-in-law for the number to a shrink. However, she turns out to be running a scam along with Dean (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to extort money from Barry. After several harassing phone calls miss their mark, Dean sends four blond brothers to L.A. to take care of Barry, and a few encounters occur.

Then one day, Barry meets Lena. Lena (Emily Watson) is a sweet girl with an English accent who meets Barry through his sister Elizabeth. She quickly takes a liking to Barry, and after some timidity of his own, he reciprocates. After a series of awkward moments, especially for the romantically challenged Barry, they seem to hit on a groove. Barry follows Lena to Hawaii, and upon arriving home, the brothers strike, causing Barry to snap. He takes Lena to a hospital, and makes arrangements to put an end to his harassment, going as far as to travel all the way to Utah to confront Dean in person (and in one of the funniest scenes in the film, to have Dean say the simple words "that's that".)


PUNCH DRUNK LOVE works so well as a love story because the characters are so perfectly imperfect. They appear to be total opposites as well, He reluctant to any change (he never sheds his royal blue suit save for the moment he realizes his love for Lena, and goes so far as to carry a phone receiver with him all the way to his Utah destination) and has no knowledge of the world outside of the small sphere he limits himself to, while She travels the world and seems eager to take chances. There's no glamour, they're not the most beautiful people in the world, and their pleasures are simple. Their love isn't feuled by witty banter or clever only-in-a-movie scenarios, but rather just by the intangible -- the way love works in real life. She's no hooker with a heart of gold, he's no badboy waiting to be tamed. They're just people. Simple people with believable lives.

The film is by no means perfect, but it's definitely more good than anything else. THere are some issues with pacing and scene placement that I took issue with, as well as kind of an unsatisfying (although amusing) ending to the subplot involving Barry's foes. In fact, the entire subplot could have easily been removed without tarnishing the film too much, it only serves to provide some sort of conflict that could have easily been developed within the relationships Barry shares not only with Lena but with his sisters as well.


P.T. Anderson's Altmanesque techniques are played to a lesser effect than in larger ensemble pieces like BOOGIE NIGHTS or MAGNOLIA, but the influence is still there. The choice of music in this is intriguing, as Anderson goes so far as to pull a musical number from Altman's POPEYE to pepper the entire scene where Barry ventures to Hawaii. And of course, some people are going to hate this movie. As I mentioned before, this isn't the typical Adam Sandler flick. It's also got some graphic scenes (several people walked out of my screening during the phone sex scene, due to language alone). Someone in my screening also bemoaned the film as "the worst piece of shit he ever saw", but that's a stretch. Even for the folks who hated MAGNOLIA (a contingent that does not include this reviewer.)

The film is tied together by a piano left on the street at the beginning of the film by a mysterious taxicab, shortly after a horrible automobile accident that we can only assume is in Barry's imagination. Barry clings to the piano as a source of comfort at some of his most unnerving moments, and when he is finally at peace, he for the first time plays the piano the way it was intended. It's subtle, yet beautiful, much like this film itself.


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