Describing Adam Sandler's role in Punch-Drunk Love as the most complex of his film career doesn't do it justice, considering that his career otherwise begins with Going Overboard and ends with Mr. Deeds. Nonetheless, part of what makes Punch-Drunk Love so fascinating is how little Sandler's character deviates from his prototypical violence-prone manchild unable to handle the pressures of the real world. But this time, his inability to cope borders on the psychotic, and his outbursts seem more scary than funny. In fact, the whole film plays just on the other side of romantic-comedy conventions, as Sandler sets about winning Emily Watson (a new acquaintance quickly recognized as the woman of his dreams), getting involved in a wacky scheme, coping with the attentions of a gaggle of sisters, and running afoul of thuggish villains led by unscrupulous phone-sex operator Philip Seymour Hoffman. It doesn't seem familiar, though. Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, Punch-Drunk Love opens with Sandler already close to the bottoming-out point that Anderson's characters reached in Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Sandler plays a low-level entrepreneur specializing in bathroom novelties—most notably "fungers," bathroom plungers with toppers that sport brides and grooms, rolling dice, and other themes. Dividing his time between a warehouse overseen by Luis Guzmán and a pasteboard apartment visited by no one, Sandler barely conceals his loneliness, and Anderson brings that fact to the foreground. As carefully orchestrated slapstick unfolds around his protagonist, Anderson pumps up Jon Brion's radical, unsettling score and keeps the camera fixed on Sandler's facial expression, which conveys just how close he's come to snapping. By the half-hour mark, it looks as if Punch-Drunk could easily become either a horror film or a comedy, but comedy is about redemption, and the film ultimately follows Sandler's redemptive quest. It's funny, too, though marked by an uneasy humor that's usually difficult to achieve. Anderson handles it with expert ease: At this point in his career, he moves the camera like a skilled dance partner, investing the smallest gesture with significance. The technical ability would amount to little, however, if Anderson hadn't made a film with heart, and for that, his cast deserves much of the credit. Watson's charming performance may not come as a surprise, but Sandler's wholly commendable work does. Throwing out the well-worn tics, he seems to have found the dark heart of his past characters, and from scene to scene, it's unclear whether he needs a hug or commitment papers. He knows what he needs, though, and so does Anderson. In the end, all the tantrums, misguided gestures, and misdirected energy on display in this unabashedly peculiar comedy add up to a convincing depiction of the mad rush of new love, with an emphasis on the madness.
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