Although it stars Sandler, "P-DL" is not the usual crowd-pleasing compendium of bad taste, gross jokes about bodily functions and silly sophomoric humor that has made Sandler the high priest of low-brow comedy. Don't get me wrong, by no means am I saying that "P-DL" is not without extremely off-putting elements it's just not in your typical Adam Sandler manner.
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, whose previous films "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia" garnered much critical praise and awards, "P-Drunk Love" appears to be something of a busman's holiday for him. In fact, it bears little resemblance to Anderson's other works except for its unpredictability. From the first frame of "P-DL," Anderson lets the audience know there will be no second-guessing going on.
Opening on a phone conversation being held in a stark warehouse space, the scene follows Barry Egan (Sandler) outdoors, where the morning seems to be waiting for his arrival to begin. What kind of day will it be? What sort of movie is this? Is that really Adam Sandler? We sit in the audience, transfixed with our own wondering.
Then, without warning and in rapid succession, two startling, entirely unrelated things occur. So outrageously unexpected and completely unfathomable, they serve to alert us to the fact that once again, trying to pigeonhole a Paul Thomas Anderson movie any PTA movie is useless.
It's a function of human nature to file away those two happenings, in the assumption that they will somehow figure into the rest of the movie. But one of the opening events is only echoed later in the film and never explained; the other serves only to set up a series of scenes that don't figure into any of the other on-screen events and don't have any obvious story function or meaning.
In another director's movie, such loose threads would most likely be a sign of carelessness, but Anderson's filmmaking is too deliberate, and when we think he's careless, there's usually a reason for it.
The outrageousness of Anderson's opening scene maintains a sense of whimsy, but with a threatening edge. And from this beginning, the film goes on to establish a quirky but definite sense of rhythm, where really mean moments seem punctuated by silly slapstick. This odd balance of humor and conflict seems all the more shocking because of its apparent normalcy.
Few of the numerous thrillers and action movies this year have felt as unnerving and unpredictable as "Punch-Drunk Love." Emily Watson, who plays Sandler's love interest, Lena Leonard, was menaced by a homicidal psychopath in "Red Dragon," but as good as she was in that movie (and she was terrific), I didn't feel as worried about her there as I did in a sickening, single moment of this movie.
Similarly, Barry's entanglements (as with an unscrupulous sex-line tart who's got his credit card and Social Security numbers, touching contemporary anxieties about identity theft and computer crime) are more unsettling to viewers than a cinematic year's worth of stalking assassins ("Road to Perdition"), buckling submarine hulls ("K-19: The Widowmaker") and aliens clawing their way into basements ("Signs").
Wait a minute, anxiety? Identity theft? Isn't "Punch-Drunk Love" supposed to be a romantic comedy? Aren't we talking lighthearted Sandler silliness a la "The Wedding Singer?" Well, yes and no. "P-DL" is about a romance, and it does have some funny moments. But it's mostly the kind of humor and love that hurts. Like other Sandler characters, Barry has that hapless, sadsack exterior masking his interior state of emotional arrested development and deep-seated rage. A single scene at a family dinner with Barry's seven sisters leaves little to the imagination about the torments of his childhood. Here, for perhaps the first time, a Sandler movie takes a stab at showing us where his character's neuroses come from.
Remarkably, Sandler gives a painfully raw performance here. Barry's not a particularly likable guy he tells lies, he's violent, he calls a phone sex line out of sheer loneliness but Sandler's performance at least helps us understand him a bit, and perhaps makes us want to help him if we could.
Unquestionably, if anyone in "P-DL" deserves a chance at redemption it is Barry. And happily, it's a chance he takes, which, along the way, helps the movie attain a level of redemption as well. It's still as weird as hell, however. *** S
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