[box cover]

Punch-Drunk Love

Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment

Starring Adam Sandler and Emily Watson

Written and directed by P.T. Anderson

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Review by Gregory P. Dorr                    

When it was reported that Paul Thomas Anderson, the fearless wunderkind epicmaker behind the sprawling masterpieces Boogie Nights and Magnolia, planned to follow up those audacious efforts with a short comedy starring self-styled buffoon Adam Sandler, the very concept was mind-boggling. Anderson had positioned himself on the vanguard of the hip mainstream with two adventurous melodramas thick with style, bursting with naked emotion, and executed with unpredictable flourish. Meanwhile, Sandler had settled into a technically stale, formula-driven rut playing a series of likable-hothead-with-a-heart-of-golds, shedding his early absurdist edge in favor of cheap frat-friendly pratfalls and a dispiriting tendency toward teary-eyed schmaltz.

It was expected that Anderson, to some extent, would revitalize Sandler's complacent persona, but, also, somehow, that Sandler would root the movie firmly in the mainstream; that Anderson, whose earlier films were full of great comic moments in and about the exquisite drama, would let loose with some kind of loud, brain-bashing comedy that would dazzle fans both of Boogie Nights and Billy Madison.

Anderson is one director it may be foolish ever to predict. Punch-Drunk Love is funny, and the character Sandler plays is not too far removed from his long line of bombastic, goofballing miscreants. But the movie also is rife with Magnolia-magnitude pain, and it presents Anderson's most challenging vision to date.

Sandler stars as Barry Egan, an independent businessman on the verge of social retardation. Whiplashed by his seven domineering sisters, interaction with women reduces Egan to a near-fetal state — and his self-perpetuating fear of this crippling impotence manifests in violent explosions of rage. Just when Barry begins a tentative relationship with an equally nervous woman (Emily Watson), the rest of his world is thrown into nightmarish tumult by a gang of small-time thugs who use a phone-sex line to snare their targets.

While this could have been the plot of a typical Sandler farce, Punch-Drunk Love's dark and eloquent experimentalism doesn't even rate as typical Anderson, whose previous films were much more narratively formal (frogstorms notwithstanding). Punch-Drunk Love is patched together out of elemental fragments from Sandler's comic work, along with swells from the musicals of Stanley Donen, some film noirish hyperbole, and the brooding emotional isolationism of Martin Scorsese's early films, all of which flow seamlessly from one another but at the same time create an uneasy narrative kaleidoscope, reflecting the jagged and jutting emotional terrain traveled by its principals. Adding to the film's strangely organic clash of styles, Anderson also employs the silent-film "iris-in" technique and a key segment scored to Shelley Duvall's off-kilter performance of "He Needs Me" from Robert Altman's reviled 1980 movie Popeye. At times, one may wonder if Anderson's adventurism in this realm is overcompensation for a rare lack of confidence in his material (his use of Jon Brion's overpowering score also occasionally suggests as much), but Punch-Drunk Love is best enjoyed in awe at the spectacle of vibrant creativity on hand.

Anderson seems obsessed with the perils of the emotional journey through a dangerous world of random accidents and unearned violence; a world where stepping up to the curb of a hectic thoroughfare is no less precarious than taking the first step toward a new romance. Streets, cars, planes, alleys, and even simple hallways carry a disorienting threat of potential damage to temper the rewards of risk. Equally random and unexplainable, however, Anderson suggests, are the little treasures this life may drop in one's path, if one can find the courage to accept chance.

Ideas like these aren't exactly Sandler's common metier, and Anderson packages them in a stunning and unorthodox montage of gripping visuals and stylistic spasms, always keeping Punch-Drunk Love artily out-of-reach of satisfying climaxes. While it may not go down as Anderson's best work (or Sandler's, for that matter), it remains provocative, intriguing and ambitiously refreshing.

Also with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Luis Guzman, and Mary Lynn Rajskub.

With Boogie Nights, Anderson perfected the DVD Special Edition format, and, with a confidence that matches his directorial vision, he had the nerve to do it twice, releasing that film in two different must-have packages, full of great extra features and two indispensable commentary tracks. It is in that context that Columbia TriStar's two-disc Special Edition of Punch-Drunk Love is disappointing. The anamorphic transfer (2.35:1 ) is excellent, as is the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround EX audio (also included are DTS and 2.0 Surround mixes), but when the best commentary artist in the business neglects to offer an insight track, it's a letdown. So is the unnecessary second disc, to be frank, which is sadly short on personality considering the potential of the absent Anderson-Sandler outtakes.

Instead, Disc Two features the 12-minute montage of retread footage "Blood and Blossoms;" a look at the 12 colorful transitional "Scopitones" employed in the movie; three theatrical trailers; a funny "Mattress Man" commercial with Philip Seymour Hoffman; two deleted scenes ("The Sisters Call" - 7:18; "Are You From California" - 2:22); and a montage of Jeremy Blake's expressionist art (clicking on the "Special Features" title on the Disc Two root menu will play all of the supplemental material in random order). Not only does the 35 minutes of special features material feel too scant to warrant a separate platter (especially alongside a 95-minute feature), with the exception of "Mattress Man" and the first of the two deleted scenes, neither does any of it add any value to Punch-Drunk Love, instead simply reorganizing the movie's elements.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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