Collision Courses


A match made in PR heaven, Punch-Drunk Love brings together Hollywood’s most doggedly lowbrow young comic and its most fearlessly grandiose young director; the proponent of arrested development meets the professional enfant terrible. This avant-garde studio production—screening twice as the New York Film Festival centerpiece before it opens theatrically next week—is predicated on the mild disconnect of vulgarian Adam Sandler playing the “Adam Sandler character” in a concept created by the wildly ambitious Paul Thomas Anderson.

What’s more, the movie is a romantic comedy. Anderson’s three previous features (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, and Magnolia) are all characterized by a distinctive loser’s-lounge atmosphere. Punch-Drunk Love attempts to let some sunshine in, if barely—Anderson’s fans won’t be too surprised to learn that the mood is still a bit dark. Set in the bleak vastness of the San Fernando Valley, Punch-Drunk Love is essentially downbeat in its studied sight gags, fatalistic mantra of recurring riffs, and glum (if pratfall-prone) protagonist. A carefully conceived opening sequence sets the tone with Sandler’s Barry Egan in an empty warehouse, seated at his desk and working the phone. His enigmatic business dealings are complemented by the vehicular weirdness on the street outside, which sets up his meet-cute with co-star Emily Watson.

A dealer in novelty plumbing supplies, unlucky in love, and henpecked by seven sisters, Barry is a mild-mannered doofus whose masked depression is apt to erupt in violent aggro—as when, at a family gathering, he suddenly goes berserk and kicks in one sister’s picture window. Barry has no depth, but his bland exterior is a container for unconscious unconscious desire. (His most frequent line is “I don’t know.”) It’s no particular stretch for Sandler to play this Happy Gilmore type, although Anderson generally puts a lid on the star’s trademark antics—thus adding another level of repression even as he emphasizes Sandler’s iconic stature. (An iridescent blue sports coat and semi-crew haircut serve to reference Jerry Lewis—as does Sandler’s daring absence of chemistry with the nearly as eccentric Watson.)

Although Punch-Drunk Love was evidently written with Sandler in mind, Anderson’s immediate inspiration was the case of a California civil engineer who, by reading the fine print on a promotional coupon, discovered a loophole and managed to accrue over a million frequent flyer miles by purchasing only $3000 worth of Healthy Choice pudding. Nothing in Punch-Drunk Love has this level of obsessional complexity—except perhaps the prolonged use of an annoyingly whimsical song from Robert Altman’s Popeye. But the pudding scam does serve to establish Barry’s unique, near autistic, perspective. He’s as emotionally remote a figure as any of the Valley denizens in Magnolia.

Indeed, as resident sacred monster, Sandler seems isolated by—as well as in—the movie. The cast is stocked with nonprofessionals, including most of the women who play Barry’s sisters, and neither of the Anderson regulars—Luis Guzmán and Philip Seymour Hoffman—who have been drafted for the task seem to know how to engage the star. In the comic set piece, impressively shot in a single long take, lonesome Barry dials a phone-sex line for a conversation that reaches maximum absurdity with a climactic extortion. Anderson is a gifted director of actors, but Sandler, save for this majestic solo, barely reacts. Rather than a goofy throwaway, the scene becomes the motor that will set the movie’s course to insure a climax in which the star goes ballistic.

Punch-Drunk Love has an admirable disdain for audience expectations. As offbeat comedies go, Anderson’s is more stringent and less literary than Being John Malkovich or The Royal Tenenbaums, and the understated classicism is sometimes reminiscent of Albert Brooks—although, needless to say, Brooks is far funnier. But then Anderson isn’t really chasing laughs or Scorsese or (Olive Oyl’s “He Needs Me” notwithstanding) Altman; his analytical style is a return to Hard Eight. He’s running a reductive riff. (There’s a lovely extended bit on the generic nature of Valley apartments.) Punch-Drunk Love is as perversely underwritten as Magnolia was deliberately overstuffed.

Unfortunately, this bold high concept only carries Punch-Drunk Love so far. (Perhaps it needs to be seen with diminished expectations to be fully appreciated.) As elegantly crafted as it often is, Anderson’s movie is essentially a one-trick pony that, hampered by an undeveloped script, ultimately pulls up lame.

Also at the Film Festival this week (and opening theatrically Friday), Paul Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday is a startlingly immediate re-creation of the January 1972 Derry massacre occasioned by an Irish protest held in defiance of a British ban.

Establishing the inevitable collision, Greengrass cuts back and forth between the spirited Irish Catholics preparing to march through their republican neighborhood and the grim, gray-faced British command making plans to stop them. The nominal protagonist is Protestant MP and pacifist civil rights leader Ivan Cooper (James Nesbitt), who cheerfully orchestrates the march and then is overwhelmed by the unfolding catastrophe. All characters are encountered on the run. The movie is shot verité style as a detailed mass of hectic vignettes—jagged jump cuts, sudden blackouts, overlapping everything. The “you are there” faux combat photography, a sequence that runs nearly three-quarters of an hour, is as remarkable in its staging as Black Hawk Down‘s, except that Bloody Sunday was shot largely on 16mm, Greengrass is frequently closer to the action, and here, for the most part, the victims are unarmed civilians. (Thirteen were killed and 14 wounded, although it feels like many more.)

The spectacle of British paras firing point-blank into a running, crawling, cowering crowd—executing one wounded man at close range and putting a bullet in the brain of another who’s frantically waving a white handkerchief as he attempts to rescue a comrade—is as visceral in its way as any such staged atrocity since the Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin. Bloody Sunday doesn’t surrender its grip on the viewer even after the action shifts from the streets of Bogside to a local hospital where the weeping masses are still under the guns of the war-painted British soldiers.

Bloody Sunday, which was attacked as “viciously anti-British” by one Conservative MP when it was televised last winter, compounds its shock value by showing the Brits planting evidence and then leaving us to ponder the decorations that the officers responsible subsequently received from Her Majesty the Queen.

An art film without the NYFF imprimatur, Heaven is a peculiar amalgam—a Miramax package (without the hype), directed by German hotshot Tom Tykwer under the eye of Anthony Minghella, from a script with which the late Krzysztof Kieslowski had planned to inaugurate a new trilogy named for the Divine Comedy.

Kieslowski set Dante to music in The Double Life of Véronique to enigmatic effect, and this resurrection initially appears to be just as wacky a conceit. Pale and resolute, the estimable Cate Blanchett plays a widowed Englishwoman in Turin—an “innocent” terrorist whose plan to eliminate a local drug lord goes terribly awry. Immediately captured by the Italian police, she initially appears to be totally nuts, although the young carabiniere (Giovanni Ribisi) who translates for her is transfixed—and not just because she turns out to be his kid brother’s English teacher.

Conjuring a series of alternate futures, Tykwer’s calling-card success Run Lola Run was something of a power-pop analogue to Kieslowski’s more staid Blind Chance. But here Tykwer’s treatment seems to slow Kieslowski down; Heaven doesn’t have the pulverized feel (or the crazy mysticism) of the Polish director’s final movies. A cooler version of Lola‘s frenetic video aesthetic is implicit in the enigmatic opening sequence, which derives its images from an airplane flight simulator. Tykwer’s streamlined compositions tend toward the static and balanced. Although not necessarily a fatalist, he fastidiously evokes the horror of “blind chance.” This is exemplified by the superbly choreographed shot of Blanchett walking away from the office building where she has just planted a bomb; in the background, an exterior elevator can be glimpsed carrying her unknown victims to their fate.

How literal is the title? The detached patterns produced by the frequent overhead lateral pans suggest a divine perspective, and Tykwer is disinclined to judge his characters. Blanchett grows increasingly ethereal, while Ribisi never loses the open expression of a wise fool. The would-be avenging angel and her smitten guardian angel escape their earthly bounds to travel by train through Tuscany, across an empty, timeless, “virtual” landscape. Even before the Bonnie and Clyde finale, the movie has intimations of an afterlife.

Related story:

Troubles Every Day: The Filming of Paul Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday” by Jessica Winter