Published November 1, 2002
Punch-Drunk Love is a disappointment. Paul Thomas Anderson, its writer and director, is tremendously talented, but he shows signs here of becoming merely gimmicky and indulging himself, as the Coen brothers so often do, in being clever for the sake of being clever. Though it was perhaps not automatically fatal that he chose to work with Adam Sandler — whose movies have gone from sophomoric to positively infantile in the case of the most recent one, Mr Deeds — it may have proven in the end a greater challenge than the director of Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, and Magnolia was up to.
For one thing, he never manages to bring out a side of Mr Sandler we haven’t seen before. Instead of directing Adam Sandler out of being Adam Sandler, Mr Anderson seems to have directed himself into being Adam Sandler — or as much like him as makes no difference. Barry Eagan, the latest version of the now-familiar Sandler persona — a boyish naVf who is socially or intellectually backward but who ends up getting the better of those who make fun of him and try to take advantage of his innocence — can hardly be said to have been made fresh or interesting here, and his barely-concealed thuggishness is hardly more charming than it was in Mr Deeds.
Barry starts out promisingly as a young man in a bright blue suit whose seven sisters mercilessly make fun of him. They pester him and boss him around and, when he comes to dinner, they giggle and recall that they used to call him “gay boy.”
“Are you gay?” they taunt him.
“I don’t know,” says Barry miserably.
“Come on, gay boy.”
When Barry then goes berserk and smashes a sliding glass door in the house of one of his sisters, he quickly apologizes to her husband and asks him for medical advice. “Sometimes I don’t like myself,” he confesses.
“I’m a dentist,” says the husband.
Well, maybe he knows of a doctor. “I don’t know if there’s anything wrong, because I don’t know how other people are. I sometimes cry a lot for no reason.”
It is also a promising idea to make such a man the victim of an extortion plot by Dean (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the proprietor of a phone sex line which he has called in all innocence — can even Barry be that simple-minded? — merely looking for a kindly female voice to talk to. He hardly knows enough to know that he is expected to be ashamed of this, or frightened of its being revealed, so Dean sends some hired goons to beat him up. And, though corny, I rather liked the idea that when he is given heightened powers to stand up to the goons — something else that follows in the well-worn path of the Adam Sandler movie — it is because he is in love. “I have so much strength in me you have no idea. I have a love in my life that makes me stronger than anything.”
But the movie’s problems begin with his love interest, Lena (Emily Watson). It is not Miss Watson’s fault that her character is incoherent, a fantasy figure that lonely Barry might have invented for himself. Maybe, indeed, it suits with her style of acting and wide-eyed appearance to be a kind of dream-goddess. But love demands a certain plausibility, and a woman in love has to be believable as a woman. A real woman confronted with someone like Barry, who on their first date smashes up the lavatory in a restaurant and then tries to pretend that he didn’t, would run a mile, but the unearthly Miss Watson is only more fascinated.
And then, when the two of them finally end up in the sack together, Barry says: “I’m looking at your face, and I just want to smash it with a sledge-hammer.” Barry’s a weird guy, of course, and Lena is naturally and correspondingly a weird girl, but even weird girls don’t regard this as love talk, I don’t think, let alone reply in kind. It’s just not true to the dynamics of the relationships between men and women, and all the amusing by-play concerning Barry’s attempt to amass frequent flyer miles by buying thousands of individual servings of pudding cannot make up for the fact. There’s a lot to like in this movie, but its reality-content is just too low.