[Screen It]

(2002) (Adam Sandler, Emily Watson) (R)

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Drama: An emotionally unstable salesman tries to find solace in his life when he starts dating his sister's friend.
Barry Egan (ADAM SANDLER) is a plunger salesman who works with Lance (LUIS GUZMÁN) and others in a nondescript warehouse somewhere in Southern California. An emotionally unstable man, Barry is prone to sudden violent outbursts, particularly when harassed by or in the company of any of his seven overbearing sisters, including Elizabeth (MARY LYNN RAJSKUB).

When not plying his trade, he spends his time working on a harmonium that was dropped off at the end of the alley where he works. He's also found a loophole in a frequent flier promotion and thus is buying a great deal of various products, including pudding, that he can redeem for a million frequent flier miles.

A lonely man, Barry decides one night to call up a phone sex service. After giving his personal information to the operator, he receives a phone call from the sultry "Georgia." All presumably ends well, but the next morning she calls back, stating she needs financial help and asks for $750. He says he can't help her, but she insists and starts harassing him over the phone both at home and at work.

It's at the latter where he earlier briefly met Lena Leonard (EMILY WATSON), and now Elizabeth has brought her back in hopes of fixing them up together. They start dating but aren't sure of each other, and Barry's somewhat distracted by Georgia and the fact that her boss, Dean Trumbell (PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN), has sent a brotherly quartet to get the money from him.

From that point on and as Barry begins to grow as a person, he must decide how to deal with that problem as well as his emotions and feelings for Lena.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
They say that love is blind, and I doubt there are many people who haven't looked back at a failed marriage or romantic relationship and wondered what it was that they originally saw in that person. The answer could be any number of things, but it's likely that romantic giddiness, raging hormones or plain old loneliness had something to do with connecting with that person.

One would assume that's the case with Lena Leonard, a businesswoman who's inexplicably drawn to the obviously mentally unstable Barry Egan in writer/director P.T. Anderson's fourth film, "Punk Drunk Love."

Befitting the title and theme of the work, many critics have apparently been blindsided by the film and are exuding a great deal of love, praise and affection on it. Methinks they've grown so frantic for a good film to love that they've leeched themselves onto the best looking, next available thing and called it theirs.

Will they feel the same way once the honeymoon is over and the years have passed? It's hard to say, but if you've ever felt as if you didn't get or understand the joke everyone else was laughing at (or at least acting as if they found it funny or knew what it meant), you'll feel right at home with this Adam Sandler art film.

The mere mention of P.T. Anderson and Sandler being involved in the same film would seem likely to raise eyebrows and various sounds of disbelief in movie critics and movie aficionados alike. After all, one is known as an auteur who's helmed large ensemble and critically acclaimed films such as "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia."

The other has appeared in various popular but usually lowbrow films such as "Happy Gilmore" and "The Waterboy" where realistic acting is not particularly important or even present at all. Thus, the mixture would seem to be something akin to that of oil and water. Nevertheless, Anderson not only cast the actor in the lead role, but also reportedly wrote the part specifically for him (based on a real-life man who bought thousands of dollars of pudding to earn a lifetime of frequent flier miles).

The result is a mixed bag that's being advertised as a romantic comedy, but is more of an incomplete dramatic character study laced with scant humor, but a great deal of directorial pretentiousness to go around. While the latter seems to fool some critics and art house fans into equating it with obvious and thoughtful depth, it's really nothing more than cinematic self-aggrandizement.

Notwithstanding its content, "Boogie Nights" was actually a terrific piece of filmmaking. "Magnolia" had some brilliant moments, but just as many ostentatious ones that undermined some of the effort. This one continues what, in my opinion, is Anderson's slide into making experimental and thus less accessible pictures.

I understand that the film, its various elements (including songs) and the directorial style are supposed to represent the giddiness of finding that special someone in one's life and that we're supposed to feel that way about this effort.

For that to happen, however, we have to know, like and/or sympathize with the characters. The latter does occur as we see what a screwed-up sad sack Sandler's character really is. Although he's really only playing a pared down combination version of his usual characteristics - the nerdy or shy loser and the one who's prone to sudden outbursts - the actor does deliver his best performance to date.

That's not to say that he deserves any awards as some have suggested, and part of that's due to the film not exploring or revealing enough of the character for us to really know or care about him. It's even worse for the character played by Emily Watson ("Red Dragon," "Gosford Park").

She's nebulous at best and while we understand what he sees in her (a flesh and blood woman who doesn't harass or belittle him like his sisters or stalk him like a phone sex operator), the converse isn't true. Of course, that goes back to the old punk drunk element, but her character's behavior and appearance aren't any more credible than that of the harmonium which is present for some sort of symbolism that's clearly open to debate.

Anderson regulars Luis Guzmán ("Welcome to Collinwood," "The Count of Monte Cristo") and Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Red Dragon," "Almost Famous") appear as Barry's co-worker and a furniture store manager-cum-phone sex boss respectively, but they can't and don't do much in their sketchily drawn parts. In fact, the overall phone sex turned stalker element is, for all intent purposes, incongruous with the rest of the film. It's seemingly present only to allow Sandler's character to deliver the film's signature line about love making him more powerful than anything Hoffman's character can imagine.

Then again, maybe I'm missing something. Just like the raining frogs scene in "Magnolia," however, much of this effort doesn't make sense and instead comes off like a pretentious director trying to see what and how much he can get away with on film.

Certain to divide audiences into the love, hate and confused camps, "Punk Drunk Love" has its moments and gets the distinction of being the best non-goofy Adam Sandler film to date. Otherwise, however, it's too full of itself and lacks in enough story or character exploration, motivation or development to make it as good as it thinks it is. The film rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed October 1, 2002 / Posted October 18, 2002

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