Monday, April 28, 2003

P.T. Anderson, “Punch Drunk Love

I liked Anderson’s last film “Magnolia” a great deal: I felt its length, but the ride rewarded sticking with it. It was a series of salvation stories, really - and the use of the Aimee Mann soundtrack was exceptional. It also had a hefty dash of the improbable, a magical realism sensibility.

Punch Drunk Love”, written and directed by Anderson, has a similarly loose relationship with reality. Where “Magnolia” wove plots, it weaves two genres: absurdly colourful romantic comedy, and randomly violent grunge crime. It also proves, powerfully, that Adam Sandler can act.

From here, my review may contain spoilers. Be warned. I thought it was thoroughly entertaining and would recommend it heartily. I saw it with missjenjen who hated it and considered walking out. Her chief criticism was that “there was no premise” for the relationship. I can see the point, but for one key reason, that didn’t worry me much.

From the opening shot we are invited to suspend disbelief: we see Sandler in the corner of the screen, in a blue suit at a desk, framed against the blank, bare cream and green walls of an industrial space. It is so stark as to be almost surreal. He mutters meekly about a coupon deal into the phone, speaking to a call centre. (Phones are crucial to this film.) Hearing something, a high wire-plucking noise, he steps outside into the dawn, into an industrial anywhere lot beside a mechanic’s. He strolls with coffee to the front gate. All is quiet but for a tarpaulin strumming on chain wire.

Spectacularly, a panel van flips on the road. It rolls, crunching and scattering debris, breaking the silence. A taxi-van screeches to a halt and deposits a very small piano at the curb. Sandler watches in shock.

We are in a P.T. Anderson film now, and should not hold on to reality very hard.

Sandler’s character is more complex than the shy simpleton he seems. He has seven sisters: all awfully in your face, intrusive and obsessed with whether Sandler is gay, too alone, a recluse. With them, it is entirely apparent he has no privacy, no expectation of “confidentiality” - the one thing he seeks, a space where he can be himself. This meek, stumbling, self-effacing, almost transparent man has a flare for casual and disproportionate violence - outbursts that result from confrontation, or intrusion into his privacy.

Seeking someone to speak to “confidentially” about the fact that “sometimes I don’t like myself”, he makes an ill-fated call to a phone sex line.

Sandler soon becomes torn in two directions: between the awkward, yet impulsive woman (Emily Watson) who has shyly, stubbornly chosen him; and the nasty, grungy world of a confidence man (Phillip Seymour Hoffman in a lovely character part).

The cinematography is excellent, the use of ordinary sounds at slightly exaggerated volumes is effective (as is the almost merry-go-round soundtrack) and the use of colour is touchingly simple. The male and female leads, the two complex naïves, are usually in blue and red respectively - though each has a moment dressed only in white.

This is a story about how reconciling the different parts of who and what we are can make us strong, about how the shy can be bold and nice people can be violent. It is about how love or sex can marry these seemingly irreconcilable parts of ourselves. Its two potentially disjointed halves, like Sandler’s character, reconcile rather simply.

It is a fairy tale, and rather poignant.

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