A Many Splendored Thing 

*Punch-Drunk Love (R)
Columbia Pictures

As I was walking out of the movie theater, imagining the superlatives that I might use to describe Adam Sandler's performance in Punch-Drunk Love, a lady walking out next to me said, in a beautifully preserved Appalachian accent, "They oughta be ashamed makin' a movie like that. Did yew like it?"

I told her that yes, I liked it very much, although in concession I said that it was odd.

"It was odd, alright," she said. "Ah'll say that much."

She confirmed my hunch: Punch-Drunk Love isn't the type of movie to go to on a first date -- although it is a terrific love story. It also isn't the type of movie to recommend to a casual friend -- although it is a movie you'll want to recommend over and over. Ditto to elderly relatives, and those you know who demand either straightforward narrative or outr experimentation.

This newest film by P.T. Anderson, the writer/director of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, defies categorization. Part of that defiance lies within the slightly strange plot -- Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) is a very lonely small-business owner with a conventional life, absent the occasional violent rages and strange obsessions that occasionally overtake him. He's so lonely that he unwisely calls up a phone sex line just to have someone to talk to. Soon thereafter one of his seven sisters introduces him to a co-worker, Lena Leonard (Emily Watson) and, improbably, the two fall in love. Meanwhile, the vile owner of the phone sex line tries to extort money from Barry and sends four brothers to scare him out of $500.

In conventional terms, the plot of Punch-Drunk Love is ridiculously thin. That matters, however, not at all -- it is just enough to carry the considerable emotional weight of the film. The rest of the lifting is done through an amazing job by Adam Sandler who has a role that demands a kind of silent gravity, punctuated by violence, that I believe few contemporary male leads could pull off. Through a slightly adenoid voice, a body turned inward and an embrace of silence, Sandler manages to convey a man trying to contain his self-hatred while he searches for dignity. Opposite him, the slightly off-balance Emily Watson is positively luminous.

And that's just the screenplay and acting. The lighting, camerawork and soundtrack are also extraordinary: the light of a silent street in early morning where a car mysteriously turns over and flies out of sight, the overwhelming pink tones of Hawaii covered by silhouettes, the fluorescent harshness and color-coded sameness of the local supermarket. With a combination of handheld cameras giving a slightly jangly edge to scenes, an occasional use of a wide lens, and a bold eye, cinematographer Robert Elswit makes astounding use of the emotional range of the medium. Combined with an equally unconventional sound design -- unexpectedly loud at times, or tracked with disconcerting music -- the film pushes and pulls you all over its strange and moving universe.

Punch-Drunk Love does not try to mimic reality so much as try to make its own world -- slightly pretentious, perhaps, but I was willing to allow myself to be swept into that bizarre and disorienting place. It could be that feeling that my interlocutor leaving the movie was resisting. More power to her, but I want to go back and feel and see and hear it all again.

-- Andrea Lucard


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