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Festival Review

Luis Guzman and Adam Sandler
go shopping for pudding.
Punch-Drunk Love
by Jürgen Fauth

Guide Rating -  


After the success of "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia," wunderkind P.T. Anderson 's new film, ostensibly a quirky love story about a novelty toilet plunger salesman and a lovely English woman, is a wreck.

The film's big draw is the casting of Adam Sandler, a move that is supposed to be surprising and poignant. Excuse me, but who is this guy? I was subjected to "The Wedding Singer" on an airplane once and all I remember is Drew Barrymore's lovely smile, so perhaps I am not the right man to argue whether "Punch-Drunk Love" indeed constitutes "a savvy critical appraisal of Sandler's screen personality and a transcendent redemption of it," as the press kit assures us. I am, however, qualified to tell you that Barry, Sandler's character in the film, is an unconvincing grab-bag of half-baked ideas that don't add up to much of a person, let alone one we'd like to root for.

Barry, in addition to running the above-mentioned toilet plunger business from a California garage, wears a blue polyester suit, punches through glass windows when he's tormented by his seven sisters, and collects pudding to accumulate frequent-flyer miles. He's also the kind of man who calls a phone sex line just to talk. (Loners who hire sex workers only to not make use of their services are among the most hackneyed of movie cliches.)

Adam Sandler and P.T. Anderson
at the New York Film Festival

When one of Barry's sisters sets him up with her British friend Lena (Emily Watson), an altogether unconvincing love story begins its labored course. Nothing in the movie even begins to answer the question why Lena, a loveable and reasonably successful woman, is so eager to get it on with the violent, unattractive, ill-adjusted Barry. They have nothing in common, and the clever and eccentric use of Olive Oyl's love theme from "Popeye" nonwithstanding, there is no chemistry between the two. However ironic it wants to be, any love story where the two central characters don't make sense is clearly in trouble. A film called "Punch-Drunk Love" in which the passion is inexplicable and largely absent is doomed to failure.

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I'm generally in favor of oddball situations and quirky characters and harmoniums dropped on the street for no reason. But in "Punch-Drunk Love," there's no there there. All those whacky ideas surround an empty or non-existent center. The same holds true for Anderson's skilled filmmaking tricks, which won him the Best Director Award at Cannes. If only he put them in the service of a real idea. In the end, all the cleverness is only so much bluster and noise, gimmicks in search for a heart and a soul.

Anderson does not have the Coen Brothers' ear for the iconoclastic, let alone Hiyako Miyazaki's, whose "Spirited Away" might just be the most breathtaking and bizarre circus of whimsy I have ever seen. Or take Aki Kaurismäki's new film "The Man Without a Past" which tells a similar love story among the damaged, but imbues it with warmth, careful observation, and genuine affection. Like Wes Anderson's "Royal Tenenbaums" (and unlike his much superior "Rushmore"), P.T. Anderson's film rings hollow.

Punch-Drunk Love is the centerpiece selection at the New York Film Festival, showing at Alice Tully Hall on October 5. The film is opening nationwide on October 17.



 Related Reviews    Related Resources
• The Man Who Wasn't There
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• The Royal Tenenbaums
• Before You Buy
• Official Site
• P.T. Anderson

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