Punch Drunk Love
Sandler, straight up
By Victoria Alexander

“Remember, when shopping, the key is to look at the unit price.”

The excesses of Magnolia are thankfully not evident here as writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson skillfully captures the solitary life of Barry Egan (Adam Sandler). A small business owner, Egan is overwhelmed by his domineering seven sisters who harangue, belittle, and curse at him. As soon as they see him they remind him how they always tormented him. He has no friends and no personal life. Yet Egan is not a beaten man-he has an inner rage that he can only temper for so long. While Egan is competent and can control his frustrations, he knows he needs help. When he hesitantly asks a brother-in-law to find him a doctor because he cries a lot, his sister confrontationally mocks him.

Sandler is truly an unexpected joy to watch. He has found the precise emotional tone for Egan. He uses his entire body to express the character's oppressive vulnerability. Even Sandler's distinctive voice creates a barrier between Egan and everyone else. Anderson does not allow Sandler to slip into any familiar mannerisms. Sandler, in trusting his director, gives a performance that declares the star a genuinely fine actor.

Egan doesn't travel, but he notices that he can earn one million frequent flyer miles by buying Healthy Choice pudding at $.25 a cup. He's found a glitch in the system and it becomes a symbol of freedom for him. We know he doesn't care about traveling; he's found something safe and harmless to exploit. Maybe he'll even take his first plane ride.

An impulsive call to a phone sex line sends Egan's life careening into mayhem and violence. The phone-sex girl starts calling Egan and making demands for money. She threatens him. Within days, her venal boss Dean (Philip Seymour Hoffman) sends four blond brothers to Los Angeles to find Egan. He doesn't want to fight, so he gives them money. When they persist, we know it will push him too far.

What kind of woman would Egan get involved with? One of his sisters tries to introduce him to a co-worker named Lena (Emily Watson), but Egan is too self-conscious and uneasy to make contact with her. Lena leaves his warehouse, but then immediately returns and asks him to dinner. Lena is sweet, gentle, and understanding, but she is also passively willful and determined. Through Anderson's meticulous writing and Watson's knowing interpretation of the role, we see that Lena will soon supplant Egan's seven sisters and totally dictate his life. Underlining everything, it's essentially what Egan wants. So Punch Drunk Love is a love story with a happy ending.

Sandler holds his own with Watson and especially with Hoffman (so good in everything he does except that dreadful Robert De Niro movie!) in their one scene together.

While it was hard to stomach Magnolia's self-reverential posturing, here you can appreciate Anderson's strength as a director. His point of view is clear in every aspect of Punch Love Drunk. He doesn't let up on keeping Sandler visibly uneasy. He keeps crowding Egan against walls, down long corridors, and flooding him in washed out light.