Director Paul Thomas Anderson keeps making promising first features that never develop into mature, deeper seconds. From his dank, engrossing first film Hard Eight through his engaging but imperfect sophomore efforts Boogie Nights and Magnolia, Anderson gives the impression with each new film of going back to the drawing board. His only distinctive style is a vague lack of style and Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love is yet another of those films that promise the world and then peter out somewhere along the way.
Like Robin Williams or Jim Carrey, currently refashioning irritating comic personas into complex psychos and soulful Lonely Guys, Adam Sandler's performance in Punch-Drunk Love has been characterized as a more complicated riff on his usual idiot boys. But in truth, Sandler in Punch is just playing a more low-key version of the adorable goofuses he's made his living from, the kind of holy fools we're supposed to love in spite of ourselves.
Barry Egan (Sandler) suggests an archetypal Sandler panty waist who's crossed over into adulthood but is still prone to tripping over his own abject self. Barry's crippled self-esteem is routinely kicked to the ground by the vicious, crow-like pecking of his fairy tale-profuse seven sisters who refer to him as "gay boy" and terrorize him with incessant, cruel reminders of childhood failures and screw-ups. In a film that gets so much wrong, Anderson at least scores a bull's-eye in this portrait of an especially cruel family that dogs Barry's adult life like emotional terrorists.
Anderson (who also wrote the script) constructs his character out of the synthetic, unsatisfying stuff of Now. Barry's Modern Man lives a life of remarkable vapidity and loneliness. A small-business owner, Barry sells useless gizmos like ornamental toilet plungers and shops at 99 cent stores whose rows and rows of junk show Anderson's debt to contemporary photographers like Andreas Gursky.
Punch is about a world so ersatz even reality doesn't register as such. Sitting on the beach in Hawaii, gazing at the ocean, Barry enthuses, "It really looks like Hawaii here," as if shocked by the scene's lack of resemblance to TV. Characters have the illusion of being connected by phone calls and plane travel, but are really disconnected. When Barry's self-esteem sputters into crisis-mode, he goes searching for companionship in just the sort of anonymous, detached way one would expect of this blandly regular guy -- he calls a phone sex line and connects with a nasty girl (Ashley Clark).
As Anderson plays it, that single call turns out to be a life-altering mistake. Soon even Barry's empty, dull life looks pretty good compared to the world of hurt this far-away tart is raining down on his head. Women in Punch are like the second act toads of Magnolia; a biblical plague upon the land, save for one glowing, magical creature. In Anderson's unapologetically goony love story, wide-eyed also-innocent Lena Leonard (Emily Watson) offers Barry's puny, beaten man the hope of something better.
Punch begins on a definitely odd, supernatural note when a tiny piano dropped on the road outside Barry's business signals bizarro things to come. But Anderson never delivers on that early promise of interesting things about to happen. Instead, the film feels like watered-down Coen-ville typified by the Provo, Utah, discount furniture salesman Dean Trumbell (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who operates the phone sex line Barry calls and runs a snake-mean posse of brothers he sends down to Los Angeles to shake poor Barry down.
Though Punch garnered Anderson a Best Director prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival, where Sandler's resemblance to cinematic half-wit Jerry Lewis apparently weighed heavy on an enthusiastic French audience, there's very little to hold onto in this lackluster, uninspiring film with the disappointing inertness of a deflated balloon. As a first film, Punch might have signaled something promising, but as a fourth effort, and a disappointing follow-up to the superior Magnolia, Anderson's film can feel like a director spinning his wheels, trying to fix upon a great idea.