Published Dec 01, 2002Director Paul Thomas Anderson scales down the ambitions of his early features (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) with this seemingly straightforward romantic trifle starring Adam Sandler (for whom he specifically wrote the role). And while it's smaller in scale (no huge ensemble), shorter (91 minutes), and takes on a more conventional "boy meets girl he likes" structure, its unfolding story remains full of surprises. Adam Sandler plays Barry, who owns a small business selling novelty toilet plungers (dubbed "fungers"), but is emotionally crippled by some serious anger issues. Recognising this, he's trying to work through them and put on a happy face to co-workers, his six sisters, and himself, but he's in such denial, his rage overwhelms him in ways he simply can't control, leaving him helpless. His search for a way out from under this burden comes in small, tentative steps he finds and tries to play an abandoned harmonium, he dabbles in phone sex, he buys a new suit then wears it every day. And in the most ridiculous move purportedly inspired by a real life incident he obsessively collects pudding cups in order to take advantage of a frequent flier miles promotion, despite the fact that he never travels and has no plans to. The arrival of a beautiful, shy girl (Emily Watson) who's inexplicably taken with Barry is the catalyst to him finally trying to deal with some of his pent-up frustrations, allowing him to awkwardly express the desires he's been so unable to unravel. At the core of Punch-Drunk Love is a remarkably layered performance by Adam Sandler, who delves into his anger in ways only hinted at in some of his more over-the-top comic performances. His (and Anderson's) refusal to fully explain Barry, or to neatly resolve his conflicts, is what makes this film fascinating. From the outset it's clear that as conventional as the film may appear, it won't play by romantic-comedy rules. By peppering the film with unusual distractions (pudding, sisters and the ridiculous consequences of phone sex), Anderson keeps the audience guessing. And in a weird way, its completely unresolved conclusion seems like the most satisfying way for the film to wrap up there's no fateful Empire State building meeting here. In the spirit of Magnolia, it's just some stuff that happens interesting, unusual, unpredictable and completely believable though ridiculous stuff.