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Punch-Drunk Love

Adam Sandler will shock a lot of people with the ferocity and feeling of his performance in Punch-Drunk Love, especially those snobs who dismiss Sandler’s movies as moronic drool without actually seeing any of them.

Paul Thomas Anderson, the indie firebrand behind Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Hard Eight, isn’t one of those snobs. It’s not hard to imagine Anderson relating to the rage roiling beneath Sandler’s better comedies, even the critically reviled Billy Madison and The Waterboy. Mark Wahlberg’s teen misfit turned porn star Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights fumes at authority (“You’re not the boss of me!”) with the same lid-off temper Sandler brings to his hockey-playing rage-aholic in the much-underrated Happy Gilmore. Still, Sandler has never had a script or a director who could tap into his fury, sidestep his gooey side (Mr. Deeds, ugh), retain his heart and humor, and shape them into a film of comic and dramatic weight.

He does now. Sandler, 36, and Anderson, 32, are parallel lines that meet triumphantly in a mesmerizer that stays true to both of their anarchic spirits. The film runs a scant eighty-nine minutes (Magnolia tipped three hours), but there’s no skimping on Anderson’s hallmarks: emotion, style and startling innovation.

Punch-Drunk Love is a movie that sneaks up on you — they’re the best kind — and to save the surprises I’ll merely sketch out the basics: Sandler plays Barry Egan, a painfully shy San Fernando Valley salesman in toilet plungers with a co-worker (the priceless Luis Guzman) who clearly worries about him. Barry has seven damaging sisters — they teasingly called him Gay Boy as a child — who set him up on dates.

One date sticks. The British Lena Leonard (a radiant, no-bull Emily Watson) sees something in Barry even when he excuses himself at a restaurant to “beat up the bathroom,” making a bloody mess of himself and it. Then there’s Barry’s one-time try at phone sex and the extortionist (Philip Seymour Hoffman in his own fine, raging form) who damn near kills him.

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Ably abetted by cinematographer Robert Elswit, editor Leslie Jones and a score by Jon Brion that allows for aberrations such as Shelley Duvall warbling an obsessive song from Popeye, Anderson orchestrates a comic romance like no other. The effect is intoxicating. Sandler and the movie will knock you for a loop.

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