Punch-Drunk Love

Hard Eight, his first film, was under two hours, I know. Chances are, you didn’t see the nearly two and a half hour cut, then called Sydney, that I endured in 1995, at a test screening in Santa Monica. The egomaniacal terror that would become Paul Thomas Anderson was already blooming, as he demanded that he be allowed to control the volume during the screening from the back of the theatre. (Note to PTA: They have this process during post-production called “mixing”. When used properly, it can be your friend.) Eventually, the film was taken away from him, cut down to the tolerable running time of 102 minutes and unleashed onto an unsuspecting and indifferent world, where it made $142K on 29 screens in ten days, before the distributor Goldwyn Films gave up on tracking the film.

Anderson’s ascension to indie film guru by the Forrest Gumps of the new filmgoing generation, whose film history began with Reservoir Dogs, was seen by the cinematic intelligentsia as the second coming of Tarantino. The new were thrilled by Anderson’s use of
tracking shots, retro music, pop culture reference and little personal touches. The cineastes tallied off in their heads all the films Anderson “paid homage” to. While the story of Dirk Diggler could have been interesting enough on its own, Anderson felt he had to give every other character equal screen time. Thus, we were forced to watch all these little backstories which really added nothing. (Notice for example how, when most young males mention Heather Graham as Rollergirl, they don’t talk about her acting talents.) At least it wasn’t as embraced by Generation Y as Pulp Fiction was.

Then came Magnolia. What would have otherwise illicted minor notice in the media became a firestorm when Tom Cruise, still in a reflective mood after working with Kubrick for a couple years, signed on to play a minor role. Inspired by the pure genius of songstress Aimee Mann, Anderson crafted a multi-layered story in which a bunch of boring people not deserving of a show on UPN get to ramble on about their pain. The one dynamic character in the entire piece is Cruise, who was naturally the one Anderson spent the least amount of time on. But when Cruise is running on all cylinders, he is one of the best actors working, and what he was able to accomplish with such a shallowly written character was deserving of all the accolades he received.

Which leads us to his latest. Punch-Drunk Love. I don’t know how much of the film you know about, but many of the early reports are incorrect. He does not own or operate a failing phone sex line, for one. He sells decorative toilet plungers. What the hell is that aboutr And the pudding cups for free air milesr A MacGuffin, as Hitchcock would call it. In fact, the whole film is one MacGuffin after another. A series of disjointed fragments of happenings in one man’s life.

At the start of the film, we see a man (Adam Sandler) in some kind of warehouse setting. He sits at a desk, almost in darkness, talking on the phone to a representative of some company about a frequent flier program. Once the call is complete, he grabs his coffee, opens up a big roll door and walks out into the parking lot. A long tracking shots takes us down the long and narrow lot to the street, where we see two vehicles from a couple blocks away approaching. As the first is about to pass the camera, it upends upon itself for no reason and tumbles over several times before leaving our view, as we see the second stop just in front of the driveway of the parking lot… to drop off a harmonium, before driving away. As if someone in a mini-van dropping off a barely known instrument wouldn’t be strange enough in and of itself, Anderson needs to throw in a big car crash in order to keep the already bored audiences into the story. Anyway, a big car crash happens in front of Sandler’s character, and someone has just randomly dropped off a musical instrument on the street. What does he dor He just stands there, drinking his coffee. A car enters the parking lot and pulls up to where Sandler is standing. It is our heroine, played by Emily Watson, who engages Sandler in a polite conversation. She asks if she can leave her keys with him, as the auto shop next door has not opened yet and she needs to leave for work. He does, she leaves and he cowers back into his warehouse, already confusingly in love.

And then the opening title sequence begins.

In a nuthsell, Sandler is Barry Egan. Owner of a barely solvent company that sells decorative toilet plungers. Wears the same blue suit throughout the entire film for reasons he can’t explain, even though everyone keeps asking him. Only brother to seven sisters. Prone to acts of incredible violence when mildly provoked. Life goes to hell when he places one phone call to a phone sex line. Falls in love with a co-worker of one of his sisters, who happens to be the girl who dropped her car off with him, who fell in love with Barry when she saw a picture of him on his sister’s desk. He flies to Hawaii to be with her, but is unable to use all the frequent flier miles he’s earned through all the pudding purchases because this stuff takes six to eight weeks to process. Philip Seymour Hoffman pops up a couple of times as the guy who runs the phone sex line, and is blackmailing Sandler for his one transgression. There’s a car accident, Sandler beats the crap out of the blackmailers. Boy and girl are in love. The end.

I once had high hopes for PDL. The premise sounded interesting, and most filmmakers are smart enough to know most comedies shouldn’t exceed 105 minutes. That this film doesn’t even make it to the 100 minute mark showed to me that Anderson was finally able to learn the concept of self-editing in the writing process. But alas, the movie is filled with extended scenes of nothingness. Tracking shots that go on and on, and on and on, and on and on. Static shots of actors waiting for something else to happen. Transitional moments with multi-colored fades and wipes with a harmonium playing on the soundtrack which should last no more than five or ten seconds going on for a full minute or more.

Sadly, Anderson is a mediocre writer and director who is able to surround himself with a talented cast and crew to make him look much better than he is. His team of producers, cinematographer, and score composer, all whom have worked with Anderson for several films now, give far more effort than this beast deserves. PDL is a beautiful looking and sounding film, but just drags on far too long, even in its abbreviated state.

What does save this film from being a total waste of celluloid is Adam Sandler. Essentially playing a slightly toned down and reserved version of all his other characters, his Barry Egan is the savior of this story. I doubt any other actor working today would be able to make this character work. PDL is not a waste for him. It is Sandler’s World According To Garp. His Where The Buffalo Roam. His Bonfire of the Vanities. The film he needs to move him to the next level of becoming his generation’s Robin Williams or Bill Murray or Tom Hanks, incredibly gifted talents who would have longed burned out by now if stuck only in the comedy field. This is not Sandler’s year to win any major awards, but his time will come.

Or perhaps I was spoiled by the short film that was programmed in front of PDL. A five minute black and white masterpiece of New York attitude called Hyper. Subtitled Ace Bivoni’s Time-Saving Solutions For Today’s Young Go-Getters (abridged version), it was written, produced, directed, shot and edited by Michael Canzoniero and Marco Ricci. We are introduced to a bike messenger named Ace, who shares a number of ways a person can get the most out of their day. How to Multi-Task Each Moment. Economize Your Actions. Create Your Own Shortcuts. If there is a way to shave even two seconds off a task, Ace knows how to do it. Narrated by WKTU DJ Joey Balls as the titular character, I enjoyed Hyper more in 1/12th an hour than I did with the following hour and forty minutes.

Punch-Drunk Love gets a C- for effort and a C for execution. Anderson’s best film to date, but that’s not saying anything special.

Rating: C