Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Punch-Drunk Love

For the record, this was labeled a romantic comedy by Netflix, so that's the criteria I'm using.

When talking about Adam Sandler movies, Punch-Drunk Love (2002) is labeled by just about everyone I know as the one Sandler movie they don't like. I was never able to comment because I had never seen it. My reference came from Roger Ebert's review, in which he gave high praise and was ecstatic to give Sandler thumbs up for the first time. Everyone agreed it was a change of a pace for an actor who had up until that time made a career playing the angry man-child. I became further intrigued after seeing director Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood and finding it brilliant.

I wish I could say I found something most people missed, I wish I could say the movie was mesmerizing, and I wish I could say there was greatness in it. Unfortunately, Punch-Drunk Love felt unpleasant, nasty, and noisy. It was not a positive viewing experience.

Barry Egan (Sandler) is a small business owner. He has seven sisters who hound with constant verbal abuse, and he's turned into an anti-social loner prone to violent outbursts and crying. After calling a sex line, he's extorted and threatened by the company, which now has all his personal information. Then, he's introduced to Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), a co-worker of one of his sisters who's kind mysterious but nice. Meanwhile, Barry is taking advantage of a promotional loophole by buying pudding to save up frequent flier miles; the only problem is he's never been on an airplane.

Sandler doesn't rely on his usual schtick. He's essentially playing a variation of his usual character, but he's doing it in a more serious setting. I actually Barry saw as an individual with a personality rather than the usual Sandler-type. It took me a while to get used to him, but Sandler gives a pretty compelling and more dramatic performance than we expect from him.

The problem is the movie around him. The sisters were irritating and cruel, the phone sex material felt unnecessarily mean-spirited, and the negativity overwhelmed everything. Multiple people are often simultaneously talking about different topics, and it became disorienting. I felt relieved whenever Barry lashed out, even though I probably should have been troubled. For the first hour (of a 90-minute movie), there's almost no let-up.

When the movie concentrates on the growing romance between Barry and Lena, it felt like a whole different movie, one I wanted to see more of. It wasn't unrelenting bleak but sweet and pleasant. Lena's interest in Barry pulls him out the funk he's in and gives him courage to go out into the world, and I really liked their relationship. Lena (and maybe an employee of Barry played by Luis Guzman) is the only person in Barry's life that isn't a self-centered, conniving jerk.

I admire the craft and originality of Punch-Drunk Love but can't say I'm anxious to see it again. It was unpleasant and depressing. Strange how I preferred to see the romance rather than the darker material in an Adam Sandler movie .

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