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Drunk with Power: Adam Sandler sells plungers in 'Punch-Drunk Love.'

The Nutty Nut

P.T. Anderson's wistful and fitful 'Punch-Drunk Love'

By Richard von Busack

BARRY EGAN (Adam Sandler) has seven sisters who peck at him like magpies, keeping him furtive and scared of the world. He has a cartoon job selling toilet plungers. He wears a shocking blue suit, and works in a vast empty San Fernando Valley office you could park an airplane in. One evening, in a moment of weakness, Barry calls a 976 number. It's a shy man's worst nightmare. He's blackmailed by the phone sex girl, who demands $750. When he refuses to pay, her boss (Philip Seymour Hoffman) sends out four bullies to collect the money. Right at this crucial moment, though, Barry's already met the girl of his dreams.

Since director Paul T. Anderson won best director at Cannes for Punch-Drunk Love, there's new life in the blood-libel that the French adore Jerry Lewis. Sandler--the hole in this sugar-frosted doughnut of a film--is all over the geeky Jerry. But (as Mr. Deeds shows) Sandler also does the violent real-life Jerry, the one who goes after people like Jake LaMotta. The anti-joke in Punch-Drunk Love is that Barry has fits of rage; when crossed, he'll smash glass and punch walls. The title of Punch-Drunk Love is like a Popeye cartoon, and the plot's not much more involved. All that's missing is the spinach.

Anderson used to be a disciple of Robert Altman, in Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Here, he seems most imprinted by Lars von Trier, from von Trier's emotionally disturbed heroes to the Danish director's lapses of logic. The widescreen color-blurs of Dancer in the Dark are in the titles of Punch-Drunk Love, too, a method of placing this avant-garde film in the context of pastel Hollywood musicals. Anderson's cast a von Trier star, Emily Watson (her character has a Hollywood-style name, Lena Leonard). Once again, Watson's freshness has silent-movie-style simplicity and purity. When she's onscreen, Punch-Drunk Love is not all about Sandler's mighty efforts to become an actor.

The smallness of this film's intentions is a relief after the way some of Anderson's films have sprawled. I loved the opening shots of the San Fernando Valley at dawn. For all its litter, the city looks clean. Punch-Drunk Love is about found objects: the 99-cent-store chocolate pudding that helps liberate Barry (that's a long subplot); an abandoned pump organ found on a sidewalk, a symbol of the lyrical love that will soon be his. When Barry follows Lena to Waikiki, there's a kiss in a crowded lobby. The moment works; it's like the clinches in Grand Central Station in the old MGM musicals.

Too bad the money didn't hold out to allow the Hawaii sequences to be longer--it's not as if the plot was so urgent that it drew the lovers back to the mainland. When Watson's onscreen, the film is as innocent and old-fashioned as Anderson intended. Otherwise he's trying to make a style out of awkwardness and tentativeness. It's an approach that might have worked throughout if Punch-Drunk Love hadn't been so packed with calculated attempts to revive the memories of so many movies.

Punch-Drunk Love (R; 97 minutes), written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, photographed by Robert Elswit, and starring Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, Luis Guzman and Philip Seymour Hoffman, is now playing at Century 22 and Century 16 Cinemas in San Jose.

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From the October 24-30, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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