Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, US, 2002, 95 mins
Cast: Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Luis Guzman, Hazel Mailloux
Adam Sandler's poker-faced interpretation of the blue-suited company executive, Barry Egan, is the pivot of Paul Thomas Anderson's latest feature. Based loosely on a real-life character, Barry is intent on exploiting a loophole in a 'Healthy Choice' promotion that lets him accumulate $1m worth of air miles is he purchases $3000 of pudding. Not bad for a man who has never even been on an aeroplane before!
Barry has seven sisters (all of whom are enjoyably played by non-professionals), and one of them has a friend, Lena (Emily Watson). Lena likes Barry and contrives a way to meet him. Very soon, Barry likes Lena and the two go on a dinner date. It is during this scene that the audience is faced with the full onslaught of Barry's (previously hinted at) complex personality. At first doleful-eyed, trying - and very often succeeding - to be a wheeler-dealer businessman on the one hand, whilst haphazardly bumbling his way through an otherwise non-eventful life on the other, behind Barry's mild, almost autistic façade lies a simmering hotbed of emotions that he is unable to adequately express. He leaves the dinner table and promptly and violently smashes up the washroom. And we, the audience, understand completely - there's a little bit of Barry Egan in each of us. Subsequently, the couple are asked to leave and they walk gently into a beautiful dusky evening, starry street lamps setting the mood, as if nothing has happened.
Anderson has created a somewhat conventional love story but one that celebrates the fact that fairytale moments can touch even the most ordinary lives, or the most complicated of people, and that it's actually quite alright to have one's idiosyncrasies. There is the sense that Barry's borderline personality disorder remains intact but, my word! Isn't he a lot happier as the flies off into the sunset (Hawaii - and ironically, he has to buy his ticket because he can't use his air miles too quickly) to get the girl.
There is an interesting sub-plot of the phone-sex girl who is trying to extort money from Barry, but in this subtle, offbeat comedy it is the central tale of the two potentially star-crossed lovers who get it together anyway that most enthralls.
The film is complemented by a contemporary score from Jon Brion, who had previously collaborated with Anderson on Magnolia. He continues the sense of the ordinary being transformed into something magical by creating a soundtrack based on tonal devices from everyday objects, such as a screw placed on or around a string to alter the vibration, duration and tonality of the sounds. The result is a subdued, sweet and strangely compelling arrangement that seems to enter your head at a subliminal level - you sense it rather than hear it.
Anderson wrote the script with Sandler in mind, and the film is a tour de force for the comedian's talents. Anderson refers to Punch-Drunk Love as "an arthouse Adam Sandler film" and with it Sandler the actor comes of age. Associated with a brash, slapstick style of comedy, Sandler's roll call of characters has nevertheless consistently hinted at hidden, and often darker, depths. With Barry Egan, Sandler is finally able to fully explore these, delivering a portrait of a real-life, contemporary, and very much three-dimensional everyman. A flawed hero who, it seems, gets the 'happy ever after'. Anderson, with his blue colour scheme, deliberately chose to recreate the Technicolor feel of a 1940s movie, and with it he evokes a feeling of magical nostalgia, which he then transfers to a contemporary setting, fusing real life with a sense of the melodramatic and, as in the movies, that there can be a happy ending.
And like a movie, we don't want to know what happens to Barry and Lena after the film ends - they're locked in that final, cinematic embrace for evermore, an iconic image of true love conquering all.
Initially uplifting, the kickback deflates - this is only a movie after all.