Punch-Drunk Love

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Cleolinda: ***

Starring Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, Luis Guzman, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Mary Lynn Rajskub

Rated R for strong language including a scene of sexual dialogue.

Trailers (yours may vary): Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Maid in Manhattan, Auto Focus, Adaptation, The Antwone Fisher Story

I realized sitting in the theater that I really, really wanted to like this movie. I've never really liked Adam Sandler movies except in small, small doses, but I will say that Sandler's passive-aggressive performance here is the best thing about the movie. It feels real, although Sandler seems rather laidback in real life, which makes it all the more impressive--it feels real, expertly observed, and quietly sad. The character's violent outbursts are shocking partly because of that context--and because Sandler's Barry then has to deal with the consequences of his actions. (Although, honestly, that glass patio door? Forget smashing it. I would have thrown at least two of Barry's sisters through it while I was at it.)

And part of that shock--and several moments of inexplicably derived dread--are a testament to what a talented director Paul Thomas Anderson is. Like, the little piano at the beginning? We were certain, Valerie and I, that it was going to blow up. I don't know why--it was just sitting there, in the road, with this vague air of Coen Brothers menace. His timing, on the whole, is excellent, and there are several interesting long takes. And then there's the swirling neon colors he'll throw in for a minute solid at a time. I have no idea why. All I know is, smoke 'em if you got 'em, folks. Also, being high as a kite will help you get through a protracted sequence set to a song that's hideously off-key, or off-balance, or
something, I don't know what--it sounds like an old record gone draggy--that lyrically is a brilliant match ("He needs me, he needs me, he needs me!"), but aurally makes you want to pull the straw out of your Big Gulp and stab your eardrums to merciful, silent pieces ("He needs me, he needs me, heneedsmeHEneedsme he needs meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!").

So on one level, the movie is just trying to hurt you. On another level, it doesn't seem to try hard enough, and that's the writing: the Healthy Choice pudding/frequent flier miles thing is brilliant. So, of course, halfway through the movie, realism kicks in, and the whimsy of the idea is dumped. The piano--excuse me, the "harmonium"--is a strange and promising idea that quickly develops into an albatross that's either too impenetrable for its own good ("What the hell?") or too simplistic ("Ahh, so he's learning to play the
harmony-ium. Way to be subtle there"), depending on which way you want to look at it. Also, the phone-sex plot? I really don't want to go into details--I'm trying not to spoil the few spoilers this movie has--but seriously, it ends on a really anticlimactic, "That's all there is?" note, and it looked so promising in the trailer. So I guess what I'm saying here is, I don't mind the wacky. In fact, I love the wacky: bring on the wacky. But if you're going to bring it, bring it, okay? Don't wimp out on me halfway through. Good example of the wonderful and weird: Sandler punches a wall in his rage--and immediately starts whimpering in pain. If you look closely at his knuckles, the cuts spell out L O V E. I'm not kidding--go look. Another example: a bizarre scene in which Emily Watson says that Barry is so cute, she wants to eat his face--okay, fine, "I could just eat you up," that's a completely normal idiom. Barry's reply? "I want to smash your face in, I want to smash your face in with a sledgehammer, you're so beautiful." It's hilarious, but simultaneously pitiful, because Sandler doesn't sell it as a joke--he underplays it as the from-the-soul outpouring of a man who really does not have a socially acceptable vocabulary for the situation. Another: the gorgeously shot, fumbling silhouette kiss in Hawaii. Bad example: the out-of-the-blue decision to use a keyhole fade on the lovers holding hands as they walk down a hall. I mean--what? I understand that it's old-fashioned stylism, but it sticks out like a sore thumb. A sore, pretentious thumb. 

Also, can I just say? I love Emily Watson, and she's very good here, but I kept asking myself what she saw in this Barry character anyway. Not because he isn't sympathetic, but because she's not privy to those moments of pathos the way we are: s
he doesn't get to see what we see. She basically spies his picture on his sister's desk and becomes desperate to meet the guy. No offense here, but--particularly in this movie, with that stubble of hair--Adam Sandler's an average-looking guy. Not the kind of face that's going to drive you to lie, scheme, and overlook violent acts to get with it, you know? And her Lena seems quirky, a little overeager, but reasonably well-adjusted. What I'm saying is, I don't so much want a "reason" why she likes him as I just want more information about her character, her personality, her life--a better sense that her idiosyncrasies dovetail with his, the foundation of many a great romance. (For you Paul Thomas Anderson defenders, here's a thought: think about Jim and Claudia's relationship in Magnolia. That's what I'm talking about.)

At the end of the day: Excellent title, and particularly resonant to Barry's situation. Great cast (particularly Phillip Seymour Hoffman in a supporting role, and Luis Guzman as Barry's deadpan coworker). But in the end, it just feels too slight: Punch-Drunk Love is a movie that's too exaggerated to feel like a serious character study but not exaggerated enough to edge back over into being a satisfyingly charming one.

For those of you keeping score:
Walter the dentist brother-in-law is played by Robert Smigel, better known as Triumph the Insult Comic Dog ("....for me to poop on!"). Also, this is the second movie in a row I've seen in the theater with both Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Emily Watson, which has got to be some sort of personal record.
He needs you, he needs you, he needs youuuuuuuu
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