Saturday, January 8, 2011

Saturday Night at the Movies: "Punch Drunk Love"

Welcome to "Saturday Night at the Movies," a weekly feature in which I recommend an older title that you can go watch, right this very minute (provided you have Netflix Instant). 

From October 2002Let me make this as plain and simple as I possibly can: Punch-Drunk Love is a perfect movie. Perfect, perfect, perfect. This is an odd, off-balance, daring little movie that never steps wrong once in its entirety (an unfortunately short 89 minutes). It swims across the screen, propelled by the pure bliss of a master filmmaker at the top of his game, and those who don’t like it don’t deserve it. A gift like this is wasted on those who are incapable of experiencing the joys it offers.
Am I getting out-of-hand? A little. A movie like Punch-Drunk Love does that to you. Good films, and even some great ones, don’t always translate into glowing recommendations. “How was The Ring?” someone asked me tonight, and I shrugged a little. “Pretty good,” I replied. And The Ring is a pretty good movie, but I’m not going off my nut to shove anybody out the door to go see it. Punch-Drunk Love is different. See it the first chance you get.

The master filmmaker in question here is Paul Thomas Anderson, the genius (yep, said it, get over it) behind Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Early word was that this next film would be a radical departure, an attempt at a pure comedy, short and easy and starring the accessible Adam Sandler. Bullshit. His new film is just as disturbing and oblique as his last two (and his criminally underseen debut film, Hard Eight), and thank the fucking Lord for that. Nothing could be less interesting that Anderson tossing one off, when he’s clearly capable of making better films than just about anyone working today.

Anderson is not just spinning his proverbial wheels here either; while his new film certainly matches the uneasiness and peculiarities of his previous works, he makes exciting progress in his skill as a romantic and a pure emotionalist. His last two films were big in scope, with multiple story-lines and characters in bigger-than-life situations, life crises, and brushes (and encounters) with death. His stage may be smaller and his palate more intimate, but Anderson is still capable of swinging for the fences, and there are grand, nearly-operatic moments of joy and beauty that leave an open moviegoer (those not jaded by lowered expectations and summer blockbuster smarm) capable of mustering a smile at their memory, days after the film has ended.

It’s that kinda movie.

Sandler’s leading character, Barry Egan, is introduced in an opening sequence that is as quietly graceful as anything since Keaton (or at least Tati). He is introduced on a phone at a cluttered desk in a warehouse at dawn, discussing a frequent-flyer promotion with a Healthy Choice representative (this will come back). He leaves the warehouse, walks down the adjoining alley (sipping his coffee). He watches a strange single-car accident, and then a harmonium is delivered by a cab. He goes back inside.

A little later, a woman (Emily Watson) arrives, dropping off her car to the mechanic next door. They’re not open yet. She tells Barry that she has to get to work, and asks if she can leaves the keys with him. “Maybe I’ll see you when I pick it up,” she notes. She walks away. He watches her go. She looks back. He looks away. She turns back around and keeps moving. He runs inside, then peeks around the corner again. She’s gone. The harmonium is still there. He runs to the street, picks up the harmonium, and runs it back to his office, where it stays throughout the film.

It’s that kinda movie.

I can’t tell you what it is that works so well in this sequence. It just works. It’s just right—paced right, shot right, acted right, delivered right. Right, right, right. And Sandler plays the entire film in just the proper key—quiet, withdrawn, a little sweet, a lot shy, and painfully uncomfortable. He wears a suit and tie through the film; a blue suit, off the rack, and it fits him a little odd. “Why are you wearing that suit?” people (mostly his obnoxious sisters) keep asking him. “I don’t know,” he replies. And he probably doesn’t. It just seems like the right thing to do. He owns a business, he should own a suit. “What’s all that pudding doing here?” he is asked (he has, by that point, purchased thousands of dollars worth of Healthy Choice pudding for frequent flyer miles). “It’s not mine,” he shrugs.

Anderson and Sandler have pulled a neat trick on us in this film, by placing Sandler front and center in what is not (technically, at least) a “comedy”, but they have not reinvented the Sandler screen persona, either. Instead, they have turned it on its head, utilizing Sandler’s basic image in his better films (nice guy, agreeable, prone to fits of rage) and taken him seriously. I was reminded of Robin Williams’ then-revolutionary performance in Good Morning, Vietnam, where director Barry Levinson used Williams’ gifts at the service of a well-written screenplay, and filled the film with smart character actors to keep him on his toes. Anderson does a similar thing here. Faced with continuing to slum it in lazy garbage like Little Nicky or Mr. Deeds so as not to let down his talentless buddies who rely on him for a check, Adam Sandler here goes toe to toe with Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and when Hoffman blinks, we believe it.

Emily Watson’s character has been criticized for being thinly drawn, which is pure bullshit. Some folks need their characters explained to them in broad, easily understood strokes, with full, Freduian monologues rewritten from Tennessee Williams plays. Anderson is too good a writer for that, and Watson is too good an actor for it either. All he has to do is hold a shot on Watson a beat longer than most, and let her look at Sandler (really, really look at him) and she fills in the rest. A divorce is mentioned. When he calls her out of the blue while she’s on vacation, her voice leaps with joy. Later, he does something that disappoints her, and we see her hurt by him, but just for a moment. If Anderson left blanks in his script, I can only surmise it was because he was writing it for her, and knew how to let a brilliant actor fill them. Hers is a marvelous performance.

Robert Elswitt’s cinematography is frequently breathtaking, with glorious compositions and beautiful colors (both in scenes and between them—you’ll see what I mean). Anderson and Elswitt’s confident use of the long take and the Steadicam shot are even more successful here than in his previous pictures. Jon Brion’s score is miraculous, utilizing percussion and sound effects early on to effectively create tension and discomfort, efficiently placing the audience in Barry’s shoes and in his head. Later, as the film takes a turn to the more clearly romantic, Brion’s lush orchestrations are gracefully saved from maudlin John Williams-ish sap by the recurring use of Shelly Duvall warbling “He Needs Me” from Altman’s Popeye, in what may be the best use of pre-existing music in recent memory.

I’ve mentioned movements of discomfort, disturbance, and lyricism. I should also mention that the film’s ending moved me to tears. And, it must be noted, the film is also very, very funny. I laughed more in this first five minutes than in the entirety of the last Austin Powers movie, which, don’t get me wrong, was a pretty funny movie. Those who complain (and there are many of them) that the film is not funny are on the wrong page. I’m not laughing because the characters are saying funny things, or because Sandler is mugging, or because there is anything inherently funny about the situation. I’m laughing because this movie filled me with joy. I was pleased, ecstatic, to be having such a great time at the movies.

Most, I’m afraid, will not have the same great time. Much has been made of the fact that Anderson is one of the most widely praised of American filmmakers, but has yet to reach a mass audience with his films (both Boogie Nights and Magnolia topped out at under $30 million). Much of the general reaction to the film thus far has been frighteningly polarized; most either fall in love with or dismiss it as garbage. The masses are not going to go for a film this exceptional. Those who criticize Anderson’s inability to connect with the wide audience should ask if he even wants to. Anderson is clearly a talented enough filmmaker that, if dialed down, could make a disposable, easy entertainment. But why would he? Here was an ideal opportunity to do just that, to make a commercial film with one of America’s biggest stars. And instead, Anderson has produced his strangest and most distinctive project to date. It is unlike any film I’ve seen.

Great films should, and often do, overwhelm us. The cinema is the most powerful of all art forms, combining (as it can) the best of photography, music, and the written word. What excuse is there for filmmakers who bore us, who tell us the same stories over and over again, who talk down to us, who waste the opportunity to communicate in the most compelling way imaginable? There is none. But those, like Anderson, who make the effort to do something new and unique and, on occasions like this, revitalize the art form should be applauded and congratulated.

"Punch Drunk Love" is available on DVD and is streaming on Netflix.

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