Paul Thomas Anderson's previous features--Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, and Magnolia--are all visual marvels and certainly have their narrative charms. But they also suffer from significant flaws: inflated running times, clumsy endings, and painfully obvious precedents. Indeed, Boogie Nights felt so much like Anderson "doing" Martin Scorsese, and Magnolia so much like Anderson "doing" Robert Altman, that it makes Anderson's fourth feature film that much more of a revelation. With Punch-Drunk Love, Anderson must finally be doing himself, for the tight, 90-minute package he delivers here feels genuine, energetic, and wholly unique.
Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) operates a small business in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley. An awkward bundle of nerves with serious anger-management problems, Barry gets through life by burying himself in routine and avoiding new experiences. Much of the stress in his life comes from his seven sisters, who belittle him with reminders of childhood embarrassments; foremost among them is Elizabeth (Mary Lynn Rajskub), who threatens Barry's delicate emotional balance by trying to set him up with Lena (Emily Watson).
It sounds like a conventional romantic comedy, with a little Sandler slapstick thrown in. It's not. Every character in Punch-Drunk Love--indeed, every character, every setting, and every prop--is introduced in oblique or jarring ways, creating an unpredictable rhythm that discourages the usual complacent moviegoing experience. While Barry's romantic awakening forms the film's center, its narrative hinges on frequent-flier miles, a phone-sex operator, pudding, and one scene of thrilling, Straw Dogs-worthy revenge. And even if Sandler plays a variation on his usual schtick (a spoiled kid caught in a state of arrested development), Anderson is less interested in documenting Barry's emotional stuntedness than in exploring what made him that way, and what it will take for him to be healed.
Where Anderson's earlier films felt inspired by other films instead of real life, every element of Punch-Drunk Love feels fantastically alive, including its challenging score by pop producer Jon Brion; an inspired supporting cast including Anderson regulars Luis Guzmán, and Philip Seymour Hoffman; and wildly creative mise-en-scène. At moments, the frame is so filled with activity that it merits comparison to Jacques Tati's vibrant Playtime. Indeed, Anderson uses Sandler here as a modern-day M. Hulot, a bumbling physical comedian whose hijinks illustrate, with humor and pathos, both the perils of and the ludicrousness of our physical environment. In the process, Anderson and Sandler never insult our intelligence, and often push the boundaries of American film comedy.