Through the years, I've yet to find another comic star who arouses such disdain as Adam Sandler. Critics, friends, record store clerks, audiences who flock to Johy Sayles movies (I'm generalizing here, but I've been defending him for so long), loathe Adam Sandler. Who else induces such contempt? Maybe very early Jim Carrey (but by The Truman Show and clearly Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind he was rightfully embraced) and, of course, Jerry Lewis, who thankfully has finally gotten his due, even outside of France. (In fact, I'm surprised the French haven't taken to Sandler -- they so love explicating our Ugly Americans.) But Sandler -- he's a special case. Think of what many deem him -- lazy, homophobic, frat boy humor, contributing to the dumbing down of cinema, and America -- and though many of his pictures are indeed, lackluster and stupid, the stamp on the comic isn't entirely fair.
He's also capable of sensitive, inspired moments that show unique talent and depth. Those critics and certain Sandler-haters might change their tune with Judd Apatow's newest Sandler defense, Funny People, and that will bother me. Because Sandler already revealed his abilities in the underrated Spanglish (directed by James L. Brooks) and most especially in one of the most romantic movies of the last near ten years --Paul Thomas Anderson’s exalting, superb, poetic Punch-Drunk Love.
Punch-Drunk Love -- I was baffled by the picture’s lukewarm to mixed reception upon release (in 2002), and wonder why it remains misunderstood to this day. I know that even many Anderson lovers scratched their heads over the movie’s lack of epic heft, extra multiple storylines and large scale speeches. (Many did the same with There Will Be Blood, another movie that features a strong central performance and person who seems to polarize people -- the brilliant Daniel Day Lewis). And then there was that Adam Sandler bias -- the knee jerk and unfair question of, why? Why, Happy Gilmore? (And to clarify, I like Happy Gilmore).
And I don’t just like Punch-Drunk Love, I love Punch-Drunk Love. I love it with an odd fear, and with my entire body, like how I feel when an anxiety attack has passed and my brain is still tripping from the surge of adrenaline -- when birds and trees and cab drivers suddenly gain a glowing, but warped beauty. An extraordinary, unique picture that manages to simultaneously subvert and showcase the Sandler persona beautifully, while maintaining Anderson’s singular éclat as a filmmaker. Anderson’s masterpiece, There Will Be Blood has proven the director can handle multiple genres, but he had revealed his versatility earlier with Punch-Drunk. No long Anderson, extraordinary monologues, no expertly interwoven subplots, no drugs, Punch-Drunk Love was a film we'd not only never seen Anderson create, it was (and still is) a movie we’d never seen anywhere. And no matter how you feel about Sandler, he leaves a lasting impression as lonely, alienated Barry Egan, the Californian businessman and put-upon brother who falls for the ever-patient Emily Watson.
To explain the off-kilter, dissonant power of Punch-Drunk Love (aided by Jon Brion’s compelling, lovely, yet anxiety ridden score) is nearly impossible: So alien yet incredibly human is the movie, it frequently puts the viewer right into the uncomfortable, anxious mind of Barry -- an unsettling, but to many, familiar place to be. We have no idea what will happen next (but with delight, and sometimes heartbreak). Sandler, who had displayed talent before this, has never been so fantastically abstract, utilizing his scared-yet-angry-but-violent-little-boy persona with a sublime darkness. This may sound ridiculous to some but Anderson's influence on Sandler is somewhat akin to Alfred Hitchcock's use of Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo (who had certainly played darker characters before Vertigo) -- pulling the dusky and misunderstood out of a popular American movie star and layering him with wounded depth. He did the same with Tom Cruise's transcendent performance in Magnolia ("I will drop kick those fucking dogs" is almost a Barry Egan moment).
Sandler’s verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown, yet deeply romantic Barry is so powerfully beguiling that when Anderson films his journey to Hawaii, it's a moment that's so overwhelmingly romantic, so remarkably special, it both swoons with gorgeousness and rattles your nerves -- all those deep seated raw emotions bubbling to the surface. Tuned to Shelley Duvall singing Harry Nilsson's enchanting and offbeat "He Needs Me" from Robert Altman's great, underrated Popeye (so spot on, bullseye perfect), Barry moves from work to airport to cab to phone booth, where he finally takes a stand against his sister (“You’re killing me. You're killing me with the way you are towards me. All I want is the fucking number and that should be goddamn good enough for you!"), and then reaches Lena. In a beautiful touch, when she answers, the payphone lights up to her voice. A musical sequence that plays like Anderson’s twisted version of the Arthur Freed unit (Barry’s Technicolor blue suit alone) it’s a masterful ode to vulnerability, fear and power, and something that seems impossible to replicate -- stamped with all that live wire, off the cliff Anderson energy and influence.
This might be why some respond so strongly to the picture, or just cannot wrap their heart or mind around the thing. I'm not certain. There are those who don't understand a woman loving her man so much that she wants to "chew" his eyeballs, and there are those who do. Love can make you do and say crazy things -- and can become so overwhelming that when it enters the realms of violent thought -- positive or negative -- it isn’t so strange, to you. Anderson clearly digs this dynamic so, if letting your guard down leads to deception, you might kill that imposter in a rage a la There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview, who dumps his faux brother into a shallow grave and shovels dirt over his dead body (a scene I completely comprehend). And if finally sleeping with your beloved makes you realize the strength of your love so much, you can easily confess: “I'm lookin' at your face and I just wanna smash it. I just wanna fuckin' smash it with a sledgehammer and squeeze it. You're so pretty.” Well, that’s just bloody fucking brilliant beautiful.