Revenge of the Nerd

Player, Piano: Adam Sandler stars as the deceptively mild-mannered Barry Egan in Punch-Drunk love.Photo: Courtesy of Columbia Pictures.

I didn’t care for Paul Thomas Anderson’s last film, Magnolia, but its hailstorm-of-frogs finale certainly didn’t remind me of anything else I’d ever seen at the movies. Anderson’s new film, Punch-Drunk Love, starring Adam Sandler, doesn’t remind me of anything else, either – least of all a typical Adam Sandler movie. Unsatisfying as it often is, it’s still the kind of oddity that could only come from a real talent. Anderson is puzzling out ideas he can’t always formulate but that may pay off down the road, in some future film. The movie he’s made in the meantime has a wayward, paradoxical texture: It seems both slapdash and maniacally controlled.

Barry Egan (Sandler) sells merchandise along with his co-workers in a warehouse in the San Fernando Valley. He shows up every day for the job in a Technicolor-blue suit and has seven sisters who harangue him about his lonely-guy existence. When we first see him at work, he’s alone in the predawn when a harmonium is mysteriously deposited with a thud near the warehouse entrance. That harmonium is only the first of the movie’s many enigmas. The people in the movie are enigmas, too, and they stay that way. The closest Barry gets to self-exposure comes early on when he pulls aside a brother-in-law at a party thrown by his sisters and explains that he doesn’t always like himself and that he cries for no reason. This is the same party where he shatters a sliding glass door in a spasm of rage.

Barry is a sad-sack raging bull, and his mood swings are presented as something essentially unexplainable. We’re not meant to analyze Barry, any more than we are meant to analyze Lena (Emily Watson), an acquaintance of one of his sister’s, who takes a shine to Barry and whose personality profile is even sketchier than his. Lena is a smiley cipher whose presence in the movie is meant to fortify Barry. What he does for her is less clear, but perhaps a clue can be gleaned from their love talk. “I want to smash your face,” he says tenderly. “I want to scoop out your eyes and eat them,” she answers. Too bad Hannibal Lecter wasn’t available; they could have made quite a threesome. (He must have been making Red Dragon – bad choice.)

Before he hooks up with Lena, we see Barry sampling phone sex. When the woman on the other end of the line tries to extort him, it sets in motion a threadbare pursuit-and-revenge story line that plays side-by-side with a softer scenario where Barry figures out that by purchasing several thousand dollars’ worth of pudding, he can trade in the coupons for a million frequent-flyer miles. (Anderson was inspired by a real incident.) Barry keeps flip-flopping for us. He’s a drone of the business world but also its manipulator. When attacked by phone-sex-company goons, he miraculously turns into a martial-arts machine. His love for Lena makes him strong.

Punch-Drunk Love isn’t a dark comedy, exactly. There’s no smirk or satire in it. It’s more like a piece of anarchic whimsy punctuated by jet-black outbursts. Anderson and his cinematographer, Robert Elswit, have designed the movie in harsh, contrasty tones to match the yin-yang of its characters. The bright, deep blues and searing, bleached whites contribute to a color scheme that often settles into Pop Art abstraction. The sound design is equally jarring, with long, silent passages punctuated by sudden, ear-shattering percussiveness. In everything he does here, Anderson is trying to summon the wrath coiled inside mildness; that’s why the movie is set in the San Fernando Valley – it’s the perfect camouflage for abnormality, just as it was in his Boogie Nights.

Anderson wrote the movie for Sandler, and you can see why: Barry is a megaversion of the slightly sinister, overgrown adolescent dweebs Sandler often played in his earlier movies. But just how important an achievement is it to deconstruct Adam Sandler? Anderson brings out the horrific in his persona, and it’s a potentially giddy sick joke – except that Anderson isn’t really laughing. For him, Barry may be an enigma, but he’s an enigma in pain. And yet there’s an ugly punitiveness at work here. Anderson is torn between presenting Barry as a seraphic poor soul and as someone who must pay dearly for his perversities. The flailings and pummelings have a righteous, puritanical fury that’s out of scale with the frail framework of this movie. Anderson has more rage than he knows what to do with. By keeping his characters two-dimensional, almost cartoonlike, he can offer them up as primal, emblematic, but that’s not very satisfying emotionally – not when we are also meant to see Barry and Lena, especially in a Hawaiian-getaway interlude, as Astaire-Rogers-style lovebirds who truly belong to each other. The movie fritters away because of their (unintended) lack of ardor.

Back in 1981, Herbert Ross’s great Pennies From Heaven attempted something very much like Anderson’s mix of sweet and horrific and iconic. It starred Steve Martin at a time when he was coming off The Jerk, a movie one could easily see Adam Sandler starring in today. The main difference between that movie and Punch-Drunk Love is that Pennies From Heaven had a human reach and a lyrical yearning that made even its blackest moments sing. Anderson’s provocations are tawdrier and far more schematic. His big insight: Bland can be scary, too.

It’s become cool right now for moviemakers to provide us with people who are in a state of delicious torment and about whom we are given virtually no emotional understanding. Barry and Lena, like the S&M couple in Secretary, just are. But I can’t help thinking that all this fancy façade-building is a cop-out, a way for the filmmakers to avoid sinking into the mires of character. Punch-Drunk Love is a startling achievement, but its lack of psychological dimension prevents it from making much human contact with us. It ends where it begins: in a state of shock.

White Oleander, directed by Peter Kosminsky and adapted from the Janet Fitch best-seller, tends to settle for easy, homiletic insights. But it also has a collection of first-rate performances by some marvellous actresses. As the mother imprisoned for murdering her lover, Michelle Pfeiffer looks like an angelic harridan and is scarily uncompromising. As her daughter, who passes through a series of foster homes, Alison Lohman is gravely touching. Memorable also are Robin Wright Penn as a born-again sexpot and, best of all, Renée Zellweger as a foster mother trying to hold on to her sad life.

Punch-Drunk Love
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson; starring Adam Sandler and Emily Watson.
White Oleander
Directed by Peter Kosminsky; starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Robin Wright Penn.

Revenge of the Nerd