Punch-Drunk Love

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Adam Sandler gives a performance in “Punch-Drunk Love” that is nearly Oscar-worthy. That sound you hear is the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse galloping through Hollywood.

What writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson — of “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia” fame — saw in the infantile Sandler, I don’t know. But be grateful he cast him, and let us not doubt Mr. Anderson again. At this point, he has engendered so much good will with “Punch-Drunk Love” that he could cast Pauly Shore as George Washington and critics wouldn’t bat an eye.

In retrospect, it makes sense. (Casting Sandler in this film, I mean.) Sandler’s characters are usually misfits, loners or psychos. They generally erupt into violent rages at some point. When they’re not raving, they tend to be laid-back and understated.

All of these elements are manifest, albeit in less comedic tones, in Barry Egan, the man Sandler plays in “Punch-Drunk.” Barry owns a business that sells novelty plungers, and he suffers from unexplained fits of rage and depression. He is manipulated and belittled by his seven sisters. He is devastatingly unhappy.

Into this life come four disparate new factors. First, a harmonium is mysteriously dropped into the street outside Barry’s warehouse. Second, Barry hits on a way to earn a billion frequent-flyer miles through a Healthy Choice foods promotion, due to a loophole in the rules. Third, he is harassed by a Provo, Utah-based phone-sex operator who has obtained his credit card information. And fourth, he meets Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), a quiet, lovely woman who is smitten with him.

Barry muddles through each of these situations with alternating degrees of apprehension and obsession. Sandler plays him as vulnerable and sweet, often with uncontrollable, heartbreaking emotion.

Watson plays her part nicely as well, giving Lena the right strengths to offset Barry’s weaknesses. What makes this such a grand romance film — and that’s ultimately what it is — is how genuinely suited the characters are for each other. They don’t fit because they’re Hollywood-style gorgeous, which is why people in movies are often expected to wind up together. It’s because they need each other — possibly the most sublime reason a movie could give.

As is occasionally the case with Anderson, particularly in “Magnolia,” some of the random, unexplained events of “Punch-Drunk Love” border on the pretentious. The harmonium fits into that category; where did it come from, and what does it mean? Anderson has a nice story and a couple of fantastic characters to work with, making superfluous weirdness unnecessary.

But such stylistic matters don’t detract from the central performances, which are beautifully done. It’s a lovely film, and that’s something I never thought I’d say about anything Adam Sandler had touched.

B (1 hr., 35 min.; R, some graphic sexual dialogue, other profanity, some mild sexuality, very mild violence.)

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