Laugh all you want — Adam Sandler has never stopped trying to be serious. Take a look at that prodigious IMDb page of his and you’ll notice — nestled among the orderly diminishing returns of his Happy Madison production factory — a slew of regularly scheduled cracks at the other side of the coin. Between 2004 and 2009, he did domestic strife in Spanglish, a 9/11 widower in Reign Over Me, and a cancer-suffering comic in Funny People. Just this year, he was in Jason Reitman’s “the Internet killed love!” ensemble drama Men, Women & Children; next year he stars in Tom McCarthy’s indie drama The Cobbler, as a quiet man Quantum Leap–ing into other people’s lives via shoes. No, he’s never really stopped. Which is bittersweet. Because he’ll never be as good as he was the first time he went serious, in Punch-Drunk Love.
The 2002 movie — technically a “romantic comedy,” but in the way that Guernica is technically a “large painting”1 — is Paul Thomas Anderson’s fourth feature film and his smallest to date. That was a calculation. Coming off the towering twin epics of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, Anderson was hungry for restraint, and for good cheer. As the Guardian recalled at the time of release, “The film already sounded fully conceived three years ago, when Anderson presumptuously told interviewers that his next project would star Adam Sandler and clock in at 90 minutes.” And that’s exactly what it did.
1. Or, if you prefer: “sharp and altogether unstable; a nail-bomb in the guise of a romantic comedy.”
Roger Ebert managed to make a glowing appraisal of the movie while still holding his nose at Sandler’s entire back catalogue. “I was in a lather to quiz [Anderson] on Adam Sandler,” Ebert wrote. “Why would a brilliant young auteur” — Anderson was still only 32 at the time — “throw himself on the altar of the king of moronic farce?”
“I love him,” Anderson said, “and he’s always made me laugh … It’s Saturday night and if I wanna watch something fun … [or] if I’m sad … I’m popping in an Adam Sandler movie. The last thing I would wanna do is watch Magnolia, you know, or Breaking the Waves. So I’m looking at Sandler and thinking God, I wanna get a piece of that. I wanna learn from that dude. What is it that’s so appealing about him to so many people? I think he’s this great communicator.”
These days, you’d be harder-pressed arguing that case. Sometime around 2011, Sandler lost his fastball; ever since, he has tried and failed again and again to recapture the sophomoric, anarchic, and ultimately sweet spirit of his early triumphs. An even greater sin in America: He has gotten rocked at the box office. While picking through the recent Sony leaks, the Internet has taken great pleasure in pointing to troves of employee feedback bashing the company’s backing of his movies: “We continue to be saddled with the mundane, formulaic Adam Sandler films.” And sadly, they’re right.
But in the early 2000s, it was indubitably Anderson, not Ebert, speaking for the people. For a particular generation, Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore were VHS canon. The Waterboy and Big Daddy were second-wave hilarious. And the finely honed nostalgia of The Wedding Singer was the culmination. Robbie Hart — the movie’s slob with a heart of gold — was a thoroughly Sandler creation, only more so: more vulnerable, more loving, more deranged. Perhaps it was somewhere around the second stanza of Sandler’s seminal number “Kill Me, I Want to Die, Put a Bullet in My Head” that PTA decided he might just have himself a leading man.
Punch-Drunk Love came from the Pudding Man. This was true, in so far as the Pudding Man was a real person. In 1999, California resident David Phillips made national headlines by outsmarting Healthy Choice. He realized that the company’s pudding was drastically underpriced for the frequent-flyer mile mail-in promotion it was offering. For $3,140 in pudding, he got himself a whopping 1,253,000 miles, and so practically unlimited flights.
For Punch-Drunk, Anderson gave his hero, Barry Egan, this same predilection. Throughout the movie and from all manner of characters — even Barry’s future beloved, Lena, played beautifully by Emily Watson — we hear the refrain “What’s with the pudding?” From the pudding, Anderson sketched a character who was timid, fumbling, lovably earnest, and — when he wasn’t desperately lying his face off — unbearably lonely.
He goes to work, dressed in a bright blue suit,2 in a cavernous, impersonal warehouse where he runs a business that manufactures novelty plungers. They’ve recently begun producing unbreakable handles, he explains to prospective clients at one point, then swings one down at the edge of the table to demonstrate. Sandler, so tightly wound, barely flinches as the handle goes smashing into a thousand little bits.
2. A nod, apparently, to Jean-Paul Belmondo’s outfit in Jean-Luc Godard’s A Woman Is a Woman.
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Barry Egan has seven sisters who love him, in the harshest sense of that word. That brood was borrowed from Anderson’s own life. In Esquire’s excellent “The Secret History of Paul Thomas Anderson,” writer John H. Richardson ties some of Anderson’s early behavior to hypoglycemia (“He was always trying to get his sugar balanced and not act like a madman,” a childhood friend explains) and some to “growing up with three sisters, plus another sister and four brothers from [his father] Ernie’s first wife.” “Anytime you take the only boy and surround him with three ladies, he’s going to assume the favoritism is with the ladies,” a friend of his father says.3
3. “[H]e was bad,” Anderson has said — presumably with his tongue at least somewhere near his cheek — of his father Ernie “Ghoulardi” Anderson, a TV host, voice-over artist, and part-time actor. “When we used to make home movies, he’d be in them and he was bad. We’d be like: ‘You fucker. No wonder you couldn’t get any jobs.'”
The sisters needle Barry incessantly — for his own good, they promise — and gleefully recall painful childhood memories: “Remember we used to call you ‘Gay Boy?’” This is presented in extreme, and with a touch of the surreal — it’s fair to assume that what we are seeing is not necessarily as it is actually happening, but as it feels to Barry. When he suddenly and expertly punches and kicks in three panels of floor-to-ceiling windows, there is silence, and we think that he has perversely managed to command the sisters’ respect. But then a gale of shrieks — “You retard, Barry!” — comes crashing in.
In interviews from the time, Anderson insists repeatedly that his only intentions were to make an Adam Sandler comedy.
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“It’s nice to make movies that are funny,” he said in an interview circa 2003. And then, in the same thought: “I wish this movie was funnier, that there were more laughs. But it was fun to make.”
He told a French reporter, “I wanted to make a real entertainment movie.” The interviewer retorts, in accented English: “It seems to me that the film borders on neehilistic options. … There is a social commentary in the film in the sense that you tend to look at consumer society so as to reveal its perversions.” The French reporter cannot believe that Anderson’s intentions are so straightforward.
Anderson insists. Yes, there is surrealism in opening the movie with a car crash — but that’s like opening a concert with the big hit so the audience will listen to the rest of the songs. “No, nothing nihilistic,” he says. “No, not at all. I was trying to do the opposite. To make an audience picture. For entertainment.”
I believe him. He wasn’t playing games. He wasn’t making fun of anyone. When Sandler and Watson hold hands for the first time, the camera irises around their fists. That is not a joke. Paul Thomas Anderson set out to make a sweet Adam Sandler comedy, and so he did.
In one virtuoso scene, the movie gives you a potent swirl of its pains and pleasures. It’s a sunny morning at the office. Elizabeth, one of Barry’s sisters (Mary Lynn Rajskub, excellent in her limited screen time), is attempting to yank Barry and Lena together. “We’re getting breakfast before we go in, so did you wanna go?” she announces, after showing up uninvited. “We’re gonna go eat. Let’s go!” Meanwhile, the phone sex operator Barry had, innocuously enough, called the night before ramps up her extortion attempts with a barrage of calls. In the background, a forklift operator is doing a thoroughly horrendous job of being a forklift operator.
Throughout the movie, Jon Brion’s odd score is a crucial component in creating a kind of nervy baseline. Anderson has said it was built in part from ambient sounds recorded in that warehouse. But it is at this point, as Anderson intercuts between one kind of fear represented by the ringing phone and a wholly other kind of fear represented by this lovely person in front of him, that the plonking of the score does its most important work. Crates come crashing down off the lift in a beautifully slapstick moment. And Barry perseveres until that sweet moment of relief. Having clammily begged off the breakfast ambush, Lena gives him one more chance. “I’m gonna go and eat tomorrow night,” she says. “Do you want to go with me?”
From there, the threads are stretched taut. We are taken to Provo, Utah, and learn that the phone sex line is run out of the back of the venerable D&D Mattress Company by a maniacal, tubby, bleach-blond fellow named Dean Trumbell. It’d be tough to defend it against his more prestigious roles, but this is my personal favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman performance.4 Puffed up with bluster and aspirant menace, Dean dispatches a sweaty pack of brothers to California and threatens the emerging joy of our poor Barry.
4. The Master, Boogie Nights, Magnolia: The range Hoffman displayed in PTA movies alone boggles the mind.
In the script, there’s much more from Trumbell. “You wanna fuck around, asshole?” he screams after a bystander accidentally bumps into him in a backroom bar. “You wanna see me kick some motherfuck around here?” Relax, the bystander tells him. “I’ll relax your fucking head,” Dean retorts. I’ve got a glass in my hand, the bystander points out, in a strange kind of contingency plan for peace. And Dean takes a beer bottle, smashes it on the bar, and holds it up, screaming, “YOU’VE GOT A GLASS, NOW I’VE GOT A GLASS. I’VE GOT A GLASS, TOO, MOTHERFUCK.”
Ultimately, Anderson decided to restrain himself to one central Hoffman outburst: the wonderful “ShutUPShutUPSHUTSHUTSHUTShutUP” scene. But still: Was this “motherfuck” sequence shot? Is it sitting on a hard drive somewhere, lost to time and editing?
In the script, there’s more back-and-forth between the brothers and The Plot Against Barry Egan. In the movie, they just show up in California, in staggered single file, and are all the more terrifying for it. Which makes it Sandler’s time to shine. They drive Barry to an ATM and force him to withdraw money. Everything is going along quietly enough when, suddenly, in response to a pathetically meek bit of resistance, the oldest brother comes furiously charging — and here we see from Barry’s POV — with one cocked fist. And far before any contact could be made, Barry starts in: “Ow, ow, ow, ow.”
Then he takes off running, and Sandler drops into the movie’s most Sandleresque bit of performance. As he sprints and full-extension dives, a kind of high-pitched whinnying emerges — the kind of whinnying that wouldn’t be out of place in, say, Little Nicky.
That’s the thing about Sandler’s performance in Punch-Drunk Love: Take it apart scene by scene, and it’s eminently recognizable. The low-simmer affect, the awkward sentence phrasings, the halting speech: It has all been part of his arsenal, for one reason or another. But taken together, here, and perfectly calibrated — he’s dialed way down, then he rages — it’s a revelation. He winces at nearly every single thing that happens. He gives us goofy, triumphant soft-shoe in the supermarket aisles. And, like all Sandler protagonists, he perseveres.
Rewatching the movie, I was surprised by what a pleasant experience it is. I’d only remembered the specter of sad Barry. But working with his regular cinematographer Robert Elswit, Anderson creates a strange, bewildering palette — there’s lens flare and overexposure all over — that might feel showy if it didn’t all hang together so well. There’s also the mesmerizing, kaleidoscopic interstitial pieces from the New York artist Jeremy Blake.5
5. The bizarre story behind Blake’s suicide added a melancholic postscript.
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But mostly it’s this: Once PTA lets Barry Egan start winning, he sees no point in making him lose. In Hawaii and on a pay phone, Barry finally barks back at a sister in near-psychotic, death-threatening fashion. Back at home in his garage, he lays down holy hell with a crowbar. In Utah, rage-clutching his phone receiver, he confronts Dean and causes him to crumble. “I would say that’s that, mattress man.”6
6. In the script, Dean actually gets the last word.
Let us now praise Emily Watson, because none of this works without her. She’s just as irreplaceable in her role as Sandler is in his. Consider that what we have here is a female shaking a male out of the doldrums — a prototype Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Except that Watson most certainly is not manic, and she’s not a girl. She is a woman, and she knows what she wants. When she redeems Barry, we believe it.
It’s hard to watch the movie and not yearn to give Barry Egan a hug. But the meaning changes. At first you want to console. By the end you want to wrap him up in a big ol’ bear hug, squeezing and lifting like he just splashed a corner 3 with no time left on the clock.
Sandler can act. He always could, actually. But none of his dramatic performances can touch the singular extremes of Punch-Drunk Love. Funny People perhaps had a shot: There was latent potency in Sandler curdling his image for his old pal Judd Apatow, then working at the height of his powers. But it didn’t get there — not even close. Funnily enough, Sandler has said he based his take on Barry Egan in small part on “my friend Judd.”
Was it fortuitous or not for Sandler to find Anderson so early? Did it lead to false assumptions — did Sandler think he could do that again in lesser hands? Or was it more nefarious? Did Anderson squeeze too hard? Did he empty Sandler out on the first go-round?
“I don’t know where I’m going,” Sandler said in October 2002, when he and Anderson entered the black nothingness in which Charlie Rose resides. “I know I’m 36 years old, and I have different thoughts than I had when I was 26, and I don’t know what I’ll be thinking when I’m 46. But I know that I want to continue trying to travel in my career with what I’m thinking about.”
Sandler is 48 now, at some kind of career crossroads. He has enough money to afford three or four generations of coddled Sandler spawn crashing Maseratis. He also has a decreasing share of cultural relevancy, and some decisions to make. And whatever happens, what we might remember more than all: Once, he had a love in his life. It made him stronger than anything you can imagine.