- The Washington Times - Friday, October 18, 2002

"Punch-Drunk Love," a new comedy from the habitually promising and exasperating Paul Thomas Anderson, still something of a rug rat at the age of 32, isn't so much groggy in its efforts to be ingratiating as stunted and compulsively evasive. Mr. Anderson corrects his fondness for narrative sprawl in formulating this screwball romantic farce about a neurotic wreck, Adam Sandler as San Fernando Valley neurotic Barry Egan, who could easily miss a chance at happiness with Emily Watson as Lena Leonard, a sweet-natured stranger.
Mr. Sandler is also getting an oversolicitous Academy Award buildup for playing the jittery, shy, fuming comic hero, who owns a strictly-for-chortles manufacturing business: toilet plungers with ornate and decorative handles. His performance isn't nearly as distinctive or dynamic as the his work in "Happy Gilmore" or "The Wedding Singer," but partisans may enjoy mistaking "Punch-Drunk Love" for a Chaplinesque baby step.
Barry is envisioned as a bundle of avoidance mechanisms, ostensibly originating in his status as the only brother in a brood of eight. Outnumbered by seven sisters, he is supposedly at their solicitous or nagging mercies as a young adult. An inexplicable lost object, a harmonium, is transferred from sidewalk to office when Barry finds it on the street early one morning. Never a subtle prop, it symbolizes the potential for harmony, or contentment, in Barry's alternately seething and yearning subconscious.
Lena turns up on the same morning as the harmonium, asking Barry if it's OK to park her car in the alley that separates an adjacent auto shop from the Egan plunger factory and warehouse. By a curious coincidence, one of his sisters also knows Lena and plans to arrange a blind date. Certain overcalculated obstacles stand in the way of Barry making headway with Lena, although her willingness to be patient tends to undercut the risk factor.
Barry has a propensity for enraged venting. For example, he kicks out a plate glass window at a family party. He excuses himself and wrecks a restaurant bathroom during his first date with Lena. These outbursts are triggered by allusions to his history as a fraternal whipping boy and laughingstock. Nevertheless, Mr. Anderson remains negligent about making this syndrome a useful topic of conversation, even though it seems a potentially rich source of verbal interplay when the topic of families comes up between Barry and Lena.
At bottom Mr. Anderson wants his new movie to be an adorable fairy tale about misfits who find each other. Fine. Bring it on. Unfortunately, he is also too much of a twerp to contrive the scenes needed to develop a conventional notion in a straightforward and methodically effective way. He barely knows how to sustain preliminary conversations between the principals, but Mr. Anderson can't break the ice for his own love match.
"Don't be weird" is the advice entrusted to Barry by one of his sisters. She's got a major point, and it also applies to the filmmaker, who prefers ironic evasions and grotesque absurdities when disarming sincerity and familiarity would be the smarter plays. For example, an outrageous element of menace is attributed to a subplot that finds Barry intimidated by the proprietors of a phone sex franchise. He reluctantly calls the service one lonely night and becomes a patsy.
The upshot of this digression is that Mr. Anderson is destined to botch a showdown in Provo, Utah, between the hero and his tormentor, a sleazy entrepreneur played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, a regular in the Anderson acting ensemble. Despite his lucky charm pedigree, Mr. Hoffman has no role to play on this occasion. He gets to improvise bluster. Mr. Anderson doesn't know how to confirm the mutual attraction between Barry and Lena without waxing weird. He roams to Honolulu to accomplish this obligatory task. He gets one lovely brainstorm: the sight of a phone booth lighting up just as Barry reaches Lena at her hotel. But for the most part you wait for the sweethearts to say nothing of consequence to each other.
Mr. Anderson appears to be one of those talented but misguided spawn of postmodern cliches and affectations who needs to be weaned from the habit of concealing simple emotions and sentiments behind a veil of the perverse and incongruous. Since he gets routinely praised for acting the cynic, the weaning process may prove absurdly prolonged.

**
v TITLE: "Punch-Drunk Love"
RATING: R (Occasional profanity, sexual vulgarity and graphic violence, with a frequently comic emphasis)
CREDITS: Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.
RUNNING TIME: 97 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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