A Film Review By Michael Haley
|Rating:Rated R for some cuss words and foul violence.
Starring: Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, Luis Guzman, Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Directed by the great Paul Thomas Anderson.
Directed By:Paul Thomas Anderson
Adam Sandler has had an interesting career. He’s made nine major films (as well as appear in numerous smaller roles) and despite most of them being hits and his name usually enough to guarantee a big fat opening weekend, not a single one of them was critically acclaimed. The critics say, “This is the same moronic comedy done over and over…” while the moronic audiences (myself included, Billy Madison is a masterpiece) tell the critics to shut their mouths and enjoy something for once (never mind these audiences are living shallow, stupid little lives…myself included). Well, Adam Sandler decided to pull a fast one and work with one of my favorite directors, Paul Thomas Anderson, on a movie that has received generally rave reviews from the critics, and is slowly spreading its way along the audience. Will they dig the new Adam Sandler? I could care less whether they do or not, but will offer merely my opinion instead.
The movie stars Adam Sandler in the role he’s been doing all his life, although less stylized on the character level but much more so on the filmmaking level. He plays Barry Egan, a generally nice guy who is likable, caring, and a decent human being, yet a pent up ball of rage underneath. His seven sisters give him constant verbal and emotional abuse, which the viewer can feel festering slowly inside Sandler until he eventually has to vent his frustrations in the form of breaking glass or destroying public restrooms. He eventually meets Lena, a girl whom he is attracted to but doesn’t quite know how to express himself with her around the company of his sisters. He feels depressed at times, cries for no reason, and craves another person to talk to who won’t degrade him or make him feel juvenile every moment of the day. He calls a phone sex company, not because he’s horny but as a form of therapy…he thinks that the voice on the other end will give him solace. The phone sex people acquire his credit card and personal information and begin to make demands on him, while he meets Lena again and starts to forge a relationship with her. However, the pressures from the phone sex people eventually put his relationship with Lena, the first person who really understands him, in danger, and becomes so frothing that he might blow up at any second.
This sounds like a drama, and on one level, it is, but it’s more of dark comedy-highly stylized Hollywood romance than anything else. Almost every scene in the movie has an element of realism to it but is so overplayed that it comes off completely ridiculous (in this case, that’s not a bad thing). Therefore, the only way to interpret the film, at least for me, is as a highly energized romantic (as in the romantic art genre, not love romance—although that’s here too) tale.
Is it worth it? Yes, it’s fun and compulsively watchable. However, I can’t quite give it the same glowing praise of Paul Thomas Anderson’s other two films, Boogie Nights and Magnolia, both of which are masterpieces, because it simply feels too absurd to the point that the viewer has a difficult time connecting to any of it. We feel for Barry and his emotional turmoil, but beyond that? Anderson made his other two films with such raw energy and tightly focused storytelling that it makes this one looks weak in comparison. The film is shorter than the other two—this one is only 89 minutes—and it should have been longer. This feels like a Paul Thomas Anderson short story, whereas he works much more effectively with the novels. As a result, Lena’s character is never really full developed, and although Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s character is funny, there could have been so much more. Paul Thomas Anderson’s previous films had characters that intertwined with each other but took the time to observe them on the own, whereas every scene here is filtered through Barry’s eyes. This degrades the supporting roles severely, and although the film is enjoyable enough to cover for it, it still nags me.
What makes this film work, aside from a good as always soundtrack from Anderson, is Adam Sandler’s performance. He throws aside the goofy but lovable persona from his past, and actually plays a different character in this film. I love them and all, but to say that all of his roles in the past were more or less the same person is a given. Here, Barry is a completely original creation that takes elements from his previous roles, and brings real human elements to them. This guy could easily live near you, or be someone you know. Also, Sandler is not above using profanity for comedy “He called the shit poop!” but here he actually uses profanity only in one major scene, and it reflects a complete snapping point. He uses it so forcefully that it’s obvious he’s not playing it for a laugh but dead serous, and it works well. If only the rest of the film felt as down to earth as his character, than we might really have something. Punchdrunk Love is not by any means a bad film, and as I said earlier, I really enjoyed myself watching it. The bad thing is not Adam Sandler, who gives here a performance that transcends the material, but Paul Thomas Anderson this time around. He’s demonstrated he can make films that truly shine and are ambitious as hell, and this feels like such a lightweight film. Maybe my expectations were too high, but I know this guy can make much better films, and it’s disappointing to see something that is only a little higher than average. However, one can definitely say that while Paul Thomas Anderson directed his least ambitious film, he did direct Adam Sandler’s most ambitious film to date…