Punch Drunk Love

Punch Drunk Love (15)

The word is already out: Adam Sandler is sensational in his serious movie debut.

I have to admit I wasn’t convinced. This, after all, is the comedian whose career has been built on a succession of gurning, silly-voiced characters that appeal to the lowest common denominator. The movies have hardly set the world alight: Happy Gilmore, Billy Madison, Big Daddy, The Waterboy – the latter being this critic’s worst movie experience in years.

Yet there is obviously something about this particular comic that makes a filmmaker – nay, a genuine auteur – like Paul Thomas Anderson (of Magnolia fame) take a chance on him. Well, it worked, because after a slow start Punch Drunk Love becomes truly compelling viewing. And Sandler, as many Stateside critics have already written, is sensational.

Barry (Sandler) is a dysfunctional, damaged man trying to build a business. On the borderline of autistic, he’s also immensely bright, spotting a loophole in a food promotion that can net him a million air miles for just $3,000.

But Barry also has a problem with suppressed rage and violence. At a family party thrown by his prying and interfering sisters, who are always attempting to set him up with someone or other – he kicks in the windows. So when his sister’s friend (Emily Watson) asks him out on a date, Barry has to work hard to be normal.

In the meantime there’s another problem. In his loneliness Barry has called a sex hotline. He only wants to talk, but the voice on the end of the line traps him into giving up his address, telephone number, bank details and credit card number. Pretty soon Barry is being threatened. When a trio of heavies turns up demanding hard cash, he flips. Things have just taken a nasty turn…

Punch Drunk Love is an eccentric tale about fitting in, finding inner courage and the discipline to live a normal life. Ordinarily it would star someone like William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi (the part could have been written for him) or John C. Reilly – in fact, any of the growing legions of great modern character actors who make a living from playing lonely outsiders.

The fact that Anderson has chosen Sandler speaks volumes. Not only has he broken the mould, he has also helped create an exceedingly fine ‘straight’ actor from an often cringe-worthy comic. He’s better than Jim Carrey and more believable than Robin Williams.

The turning point in this thought-provoking film is Sandler’s transformation at the family party. When he repeats the outburst by systematically trashing a restaurant’s toilet in a fit of terrifying rage sparked by an innocent comment by Watson, it’s all the more frightening.

In partnership with Watson, who has yet to give a bad performance and who here moves from concerned interest to nervous distance with ease, Sandler has stepped into the acting big time. Much has to be said for the guiding hand of P.T. Anderson – the same guiding hand that steered Burt Reynolds to an Oscar nomination in Boogie Nights – but the collaboration is not one-sided, and Sandler deserves as much praise as his director and co-star. Throw in a cameo from Luis Guzman and an excellent turn from Philip Seymour Hoffman and this is one you won’t forget in a hurry.

Star rating: ****

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