When you think of Adam Sandler, you see an overgrown adult going through grade school in Billy Madison, a wannabe hockey player gone pro-golfer in Happy Gilmore, or an idiot working for Satan in Little Nicky. The list goes on, but never do you imagine Adam Sandler doing a legitimate role in a sophisticated movie; until Punch-Drunk Love.
Punch-Drunk Love is another twisted work of director/writer Paul Thomas Anderson who also brought us Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Anderson likes to bring back the same actors from previous works. Magnolia's Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Dean Trumbell, a Mattress Warehouse Owner, also the man in charge of a sleazy phone sex company that will set the pace for the movie. Coincidentally, Hoffman was in Red Dragon, along with Emily Watson who plays Lena Leonard, Egan's love interest.
But the star is Adam Sandler. He is Barry Egan, an executive at a small company that produces toiletries for hotel chains. He's a gentle man who always answers the phone with a warm, "this is Barry," even when he knows who he is about to talk to. His life is complicated, having to deal with seven sisters who are always tormenting him and making his life miserable. They don't necessarily mean to be harmful, and they don't even know it until a scene at a reunion where Egan can't take it anymore. We learn why Barry keeps everything to himself and is afraid to communicate. When he confesses to thinking about hiring a psychiatrist, his sisters announce it to the world. Whenever one sister finds out something about Barry, the others quickly find out and use it against him. These actions cause Barry to be emotional, and sometimes violent.
Venting his anger is a trait of Barry we see over and over again. That is what makes this movie. Because this movie is about character and personality. When you get down to the bone, there is very little plot involved. It's all about Barry and his interactions with other characters. The movie takes place over a span of about 4 days. In that time, the only thing Barry wears, to his sisters' disapproval, is one bright blue suit. His hobbies include saving TV dinner coupons to redeem them for flyer miles.
He looks like a lost man until Lena comes into his life. She has to do all the initiating, but they eventually date and develop a romance that Egan probably never expected to ever have in his miserable life. He is clumsy, instinctively offering to shake Lena's hand as his way of showing intimacy. He's very protective, and cautious in deciding who he allows to become friendly with him. But out of loneliness, he eventually surrenders his personal life to the wrong people, in which I'll describe in the next paragraph.
But before Lena can fill the void in Barry's life, he makes the mistake of calling Dean Trumbell's phone sex line. Just looking for someone to talk to, Barry is connected to Georgia, a girl who mistakes him for a man of wealth, and gets Dean to send his cronies out to rob Barry of his money. When they first arrive, they force him to withdrawal $500 from his bank account and take advantage of his fear. They will return. But Barry's ability to bottle up his anger turns the tables.
The way Punch-Drunk Love is filmed deserves credit of its own. In the beginning, Anderson uses little or no lighting when introducing Barry and the world that revolves around him. Long and still camera shots add to the artistic value of the film. One of the more memorable scenes is watching Barry dance in a supermarket while collecting more flyer mile coupons. Knowing he will spend more time with Lena is the only thing that brings joy into his life.
Sandler is amazing. With a history of playing one-dimensional idiots in his previous comedies; the role of Barry Egan brought out a side that many people never knew existed in Sandler as an actor. His effects on the audience were noticeable every time someone made one of those 'he's so cute' sighs. The chemistry between Sandler and Watson was solid. Both are shy and in some ways they are intimidated by each other until Barry has to prove himself in the end.
Speaking of the ending, not much goes on in Punch-Drunk Love in terms of a plot and story. The only conclusion is when Barry confronts the people behind the phone sex company who have scammed him, and when he confronts one of his sisters regarding the way they pick on him. But the courage that he finds within himself is the only ending you need, as it was you will be waiting for the entire time.
Punch-Drunk Love is a feel good movie that actually made me feel good as I left the theater; a feeling I don't normally get from a movie. Most Adam Sandler fans won't be shocked that he can in fact act, but those same fans might be the ones who won't like this flick. It's a different movie, but not as weird as Magnolia. After such a stellar performance, it will be interesting to see what else we will get from Sandler in the future.