'Punch-Drunk Love' writer-director deftly harnesses and shapes Adam Sandler's screen persona

There are those who see the movie career of Adam Sandler as one of the signs of the apocalypse. If it is, then consider 'Punch-Drunk Love' apocalypse postponed.

Nowadays, it's unusual enough for Hollywood to produce a good romantic comedy at all. To make one with Sandler multiplies writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's accomplishment several times. Still, it's not time to declare Ñ as some reviewers have done Ñ that Sandler has suddenly arrived as an actor (remember those who claimed the same for Madonna after 'Desperately Seeking Susan'?).

In 'Punch-Drunk Love,' Sandler plays dweebish Barry Egan, lifelong victim of seven self-esteem-crushing sisters and owner of a struggling novelty toilet-goods business. One morning, Barry leaves his warehouse as if silently beckoned to the nearly empty street. There he witnesses a shocking automobile accident followed by the arrival via taxi of a harmonium.

The instrument sits at the curb like a squat brown version of the monolith in '2001.' And, like that mysterious evolutionary harbinger, it signals a profound change in the life of the being who discovers it.

In almost no time, the puzzling but irresistible Lena (Emily Watson) enters his life, a bewitching bearer of the film's titular condition. Barry finds himself in the grip of an astounding transformation.

Of course, there's still the frustrating and potentially dangerous upshot of his unfortunate call to a phone-sex

line to be dealt with. But then again, with Lena bound for Hawaii, he may have found a use for those 1 million frequent-flyer miles he's piled up (even though he's never flown anywhere) with the coupons from $3,000 worth of pudding cups.

It's goofy, to be sure, but often enchantingly so. In his two previous epics of life in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley, 'Boogie Nights' and 'Magnolia,' Anderson developed his peculiar but often captivating sort of magic realism. Here, he creates an airy hymn to the transforming power of love that combines keen-edged whimsy with an almost David Lynchian feeling of creeping strangeness.

It's not as panoramic as Anderson's last two efforts, but it offers a kaleidoscopic variety of moods that occasionally and literally transforms the screen into a riot of colorful stars and bars.

And though he hasn't handed Adam the apple of acting knowledge, Anderson uses the Sandler screen persona Ñ the naif with explosive tendencies to rage Ñ so deftly that the established character is refined into an endearing one. He finds a credible context for the trademark anger while softening the sociopathic aspect, eliminating the juvenile crudeness and playing up the innocent, yearning emotionalism.

Some moments remain beyond Sandler's reach, however. In one of these, Barry confides in his brother-in-law that he often breaks down and cries for no reason, and then breaks down and cries Ñ not very convincingly.

But Sandler is bolstered by the support of Watson, who suggests a powerful dedication beneath her saucer-eyed sweetness, and by the invaluable Luis Guzman as a concerned co-worker of Barry's.

Die-hard Sandler fans needn't worry: Their hero does get to hit a couple of people. But it's those who think they'd rather die than watch Sandler who will be most rewarded. 'Punch-Drunk Love' is the first Adam Sandler movie that you don't want to see end.

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