At moments, there is such explosive tension in Paul Thomas Anderson¹s latest film, Punch-Drunk Love, that I was almost relieved it clocks in at just under 90 minutes (unlike Boogie Nights and Magnolia--not that I have a problem with well-conceived characters having their due screen time). At other times, the film flashes the quietest, quirkiest moments of sweet calm, feeling like an ethereal lullaby for the art-house crowd. Either way, the film, starring Adam Sandler and Emily Watson, is a real gift, and one of the best films this year.
Uh, yeah, I said Adam Sandler, The Waterboy, Happy Gilmore, Little Nicky, Billy Madison or whatever else you'd like to call him. That Adam Sandler. For many, the question will be whether Sandler can pull off a serious role.
Sandler plays Barry Egan, a mostly-quiet, nervous novelty plunger salesman with a clearly different view of the world. This is apparent in the opening scene, when he experiences a strange, Lynchian moment: He witnesses a horrendous accident, and then a taxi pulls up, dropping off a harmonium right where he is standing. He lives with incessant pestering from seven sisters who rail against him like a flock of harpies. Clearly, it's all taking its toll, and Barry reacts with sudden, violent outbursts (the film gives us a sense of Barry's pressure, along with the strange release he gets from his explosive rage, such as when Barry takes out some sliding glass doors). But then, Lena (Emily Watson), a quiet, wide-eyed woman and co-worker of one of Barry's sisters, enters the picture. Suddenly, Barry finds something more then turmoil, anger or chaos in his life.
There is a plot twist the comes as the result of Barry's calling a phone sex line, in the most innocent of ways, adding more tension and another white-hot performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who continually does more with his 5-10 minutes of screen time in a single movie than some actors do with an entire career.
To answer the question of whether or not Sandler can pull off a serious role, this performance merits an Academy Award nomination-- not because Sandler turns in a role so far removed from his previous work, but because he offers a performance that could make any thespian green with envy.
THE BOTTOM LINE:
4 1/2 out of 5 Punch-Drunk Love proves that Paul Thomas Anderson, and Adam Sandler, truly have talent and can apply it. For many, that is no surprise.
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