PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE

written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

opens Oct. 18 at Guild 45, Pacific Place, and others.

Just when you think auteur theory

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Unlovable

Savvy Sandler can't save this off-putting romance.

PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE

written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

opens Oct. 18 at Guild 45, Pacific Place, and others.

Just when you think auteur theory is dead and buried, Paul Thomas Anderson makes another movie. And it's not enough that his disappointing follow-up to Magnolia is bad, it's got to be bad in a whole number of ways that make it interesting bad, the kind of bad that gets studied in film schools, the kind of bad we associate with Robert Altman's misfires—bad in its own peculiar fashion. In other words, Punch-Drunk Love is bad in the way that earns Best Director honors at Cannes (actually a tie); if the French can't understand it, then it must be . . . genius.

Let's be clear about one thing: In his first serious role as an actor, Adam Sandler is by far the least annoying thing about Love. In fact, he's pretty good as the unlikely hero of this nervy, jangly, jarringly off-key romantic comedy. Barry Egan is first heard, then seen, hunched over a desk in the corner of his warehouse. (It's only the first of many times Anderson will awkwardly frame him in a corner—get it?) His voice is hushed and insistent, since he's calling about something big: pudding. Not just pudding per se, but the label's fine print that will allow him to amass millions of valuable frequent flyer miles for a few shopping carts' worth of the stuff.

It's a secret, and Barry takes a break from his predawn phone calls to pudding HQ to watch the sun rise over Anderson's preferred landscape: the bleakly anonymous industrial grandeur of the San Fernando Valley (like Monument Valley was to John Ford). Barry stands out in his new electric-blue suit. That's the first clue that something's amiss with Love. Barry's dressed in hues that pop from the drab colorless background, like Gene Kelly in a late-'50s MGM musical.

The next clue is a violent, mysterious one-car accident that Barry alone witnesses, and the next clue is a harmonium mysteriously plunked at his feet an instant later. Love never explains either mystery (Were people hurt? Should Barry investigate? Is the tiny piano related?), signaling Anderson's obdurate auteurism: He won't explain because he doesn't have to. It's like the rain of frogs in Magnolia, a force of cosmic coincidence that alters the lives of all those in its path.

BUT HERE, UNLIKE Magnolia's frog-spattered ensemble, there's only one guy, one witness, and that's Barry—he's the only fully-drawn character in the film. For this depressed, tantrum-prone man-child, the harmonium comes to symbolize his unfulfilled life. He has no beauty, no love, no song. He tearfully confesses to an in-law, "I don't know if there is anything wrong with me, because I don't know how other people are."

Barry has his seven sisters, but they're a shrill nest of harpies intent on getting him to date and marry. Under such pressure, Sandler's shy, regular-guy evasiveness is sweetly disarming. Of one potential setup, he drawls, "YeaaahIdon'twannadothat." I loved the moment, then realized with a start that it had Bill Murray-caliber exactitude to it: sloppiness made precise.

Still, his sisters persist, and—lo and behold!--lovely Lena (Emily Watson) is the setup who miraculously takes to Barry. This thoroughly implausible development launches Love into a movie-musical level of suspended disbelief, which initially seems promising. (Remember that Magnolia was a musical of sorts.) When Sandler shuffles an impromptu soft shoe at the supermarket, you wish for an entire chorus to come rushing down the aisles for a big production number expressing his inchoate feelings. Might Watson play Ginger to his Fred?

No—because the music is too awful. After raising your expectations with the sweet, simple yearnings of characters ripe to burst into song, the pinging, clanging, dissonant-synthesizer-drips-on-a-drainpipe score of Jon Brion pre-empts such emotional harmony. Who is Anderson trying to deny—his characters or his audience?

In the same way, Love sets up viewers with an ominous criminal subplot with little payoff. Barry makes a fateful phone-sex call early in the film, then is blackmailed by a gang of violent Mormons (led by Philip Seymour Hoffman), who threaten to ruin his life just when the angelic Lena promises to redeem it. This precipitates Barry's second dance routine, a neatly choreographed fight with four Utah thugs. Yet the supposed threat never feels more than jokey and mannered, at odds with Barry's earnestness, like the rest of the movie.

The car accident, the musical that wasn't, the extortionist showdown—what accounts for such non-resolution? Perhaps the numinous forces residing behind the kaleidoscopic color bars that punctuate Love's chapters. Remember the credit sequence from A Family Affair or the twinkling, talking stars from Mork & Mindy? It's like that—only pretentious and willfully opaque. Anderson means it to stand for something (Fate? Destiny? The gods who toy with us for sport?), but soon you're past caring.

I liked Magnolia more than most critics because it was higher-order melodrama, where the dread and angst were finally resolved into melody and catharsis. Anderson is all about sincerity, with his characters forever seeking genuine emotional connection. Yet Love undercuts his very humanism by glorifying Barry's petulant, selfish vulnerability. Barry lashes out like the angry, juvenile artist with the perennial complaint—no one gets me. Well, if you want to be a misunderstood genius, Love is just the movie to make.

bmiller@seattleweekly.com

 
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