[Our Sunday Visitor, November 17, 2002]
A friend who caught an early screening of "Punchdrunk Love" wrote me, "Adam Sandler is wonderful." I wrote back, "Those have got to be the strangest four words in the language." But it’s true. Adam Sandler is wonderful in "Punchdrunk Love." Unfortunately, the movie isn’t as wonderful as he is.
I’m a big fan of director Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 film, "Magnolia." Here Anderson has cast Sandler as Barry Egan, a flattened, depressed salesman of novelty toilet plungers. Sandler’s seven sisters hover over him, pecking and pushing, and he responds by being generally passive and occasionally explosive. After repeated taunting he kicks in the glass patio doors at a sister’s home, then asks her husband for a referral to a psychiatrist. "I sometimes cry a lot—" Sandler says, and his voice lifts as if it’s a question. "For no reason—" he continues, then abruptly drops his face to his hands and sobs noisily, stumbling blindly out of the room. A guy near me in the theater started giggling. It’s an Adam Sandler movie, right?
The plot is extremely simple: a sister’s co-worker, Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), sees his photo, decides she wants to meet him, then seeks to develop a romance. It’s an old story: the love of a good woman can salvage a struggling man. But here the story doesn’t quite make sense. We can’t figure out what Lena sees in Barry, and are particularly mystified as to why such a strong, competent woman would invest in a man who is given to scary bursts of vandalism. Anderson’s goal seems to be creating an oddball premise, but that’s not enough to make it a convincing premise. He tries to resolve the mystery of why Lena would love Barry by including in the sound track Shelly Duvall’s song, "He Needs Me," from the musical "Popeye." It’s not enough. A woman like Lena would not have such a neurotic need to be needed that she’d pick this guy. And Barry Egan is not appealing enough to account for her commitment to him.
The genius of Sandler’s performance is that he doesn’t engage our pity. We view this beaten, struggling, yet whimsical man with interest, and he has our empathy, but not our sympathy. That’s the performance’s strong point, and the film’s weak one, because the end result is that we just don’t care what happens to him. Sandler holds up the character for us to see and to wonder at, as we might wonder at the complexity of any other human being. But we never quite feel for him. He remains an oddity, in his peacock-blue suit, with his abandoned harmonium and wedding-gift toilet plungers, and all the other odd accoutrements that Anderson has assigned him. These bizarre details seem stuck on the outside, rather than emerging organically from the character.
A word should be said about sound track of this film, though I can’t decide whether that word is "exhausting" or "anxiety-provoking" (is that two words?) Anderson has manipulated both the on-screen sounds and the background music—such as it is, all scrapes and bangs and scratches—so we can feel what it’s like inside Egan’s head. It doesn’t feel good. The technique is effective, but relentlessly unpleasant.
Part of the fun each month is trying to discover what the two films under review have in common, and in this case it’s Suits of Many Colors. Barry Egan sports a bright-blue one, while Ben Kingsley in "Tuck Everlasting" is clothed in mustard yellow, as a character called "The Man in the Yellow Suit." Kingsley is marvelously evil here, smiling in an oily way, with squirrel-bright eyes in his leather-yellow face, pausing for a complacent, ominous breath in the middle of his lines.
Yellow Suit Man wants to exploit the secret of a magic spring, which is the center of this Disney teen movie based on the novel by Natalie Babbitt. The film asks the question, "Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live forever?" —and answers it, surprisingly and effectively, in the negative. Thoughtful fare for kids.
The story, set about 1915, concerns young Winnie (Alexis Bledel) who discovers the Tuck family living in a cabin in the woods behind her home. Almost a century before they took a drink from a stream in these woods and have never aged a day since. As far as they know, they are destined to live on this earth forever.
Is this a good thing? It seems so, when handsome young Jesse (Jonathan Jackson) begs Winnie to drink the water too, so they can be together, young and in love, forever. But his father Angus (William Hurt, delivering a mumbly Scottish accent like the Godfather on haggis), warns Winnie that it isn’t all it seems. "What we are, you can’t call living," he tells her. "We just *are.* Like Rocks stuck by the side of the stream." To really live, he says, you must able to change, to grow old, and eventually to die. "Don’t be afraid of dying. Be afraid of the unlived life."
Winnie must decide which course to take. Jesse’s brother bitterly complains about outliving all those he loves, and a preacher officiating at a funeral proclaims that Christ will return and raise all the dead. What choice will Winnie make? You’ve probably already guessed, but your teen will find it a lot to think about.
I was not able to view the new Tim Allen film, "The Santa Clause 2." But I understand that it features a man in a red suit.
Punchdrunk Love" fails to convincingly show why a strong woman would impulsively love a shattered man. "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962) handled this better. When Janet Leigh meets Frank Sinatra on a train she notices his rattled, incoherent state, and as his conversation grows more disjointed, her eyes grow more intent. Soon she’s forcing him to take her phone number.
"The Manchurian Candidate" is better known for its psycho-political plot. This thriller about a rigged election and assassination was unfortunately overshadowed by the death of John F. Kennedy. Forty years later it’s good fare for election season, and we can savor the hallucinatory sequences, moody lighting, black humor, and strange yet wholly believable love affair. Anderson, take note.