Saturday, November 23, 2002

Big Stupid Tommy's Movie Corner (Now with Potato!)

Punch Drunk Love

I wonder if Paul Thomas Anderson finds himself often at odds with the world. Based on his works, he seems intent on making the viewer as uncomfortable and ill-at-ease with the world as possible. As much as the Writer/Director? I can't say for sure.

Whether it's using potentially inflammatory subject matter (the porn industry in Boogie Nights), a potentially difficult story structure (Magnolia) or simply characters that are themselves difficult to reach (Sydney in Hard Eight, and even moreso Adam Sandler's Barry Egan in this here flick Punch Drunk Love), the viewer often finds himself at something of a disadvantage--they spend much of the movie trying to catch up with the action on screen.

Add to the story structure and characterization Anderson's directorial style. Shots are filled juxtaposed elements competing for the viewer's eye. Often, a shot is obscured by some object in the foreground: a car door, a tree, or even another person. Cameras are tilted. Dialog is often obscured (and often drowned out completely) by background elements or even the soundtrack. Scenes are connected not so much by segue than by jarring hard cuts or a musical interlude complete with a psychadelic kaleidoscope of color.

What seperates Anderson and lesser directors is that Anderson largely understands the use of these tools.

However, even a master chef will sometimes mix the batter a touch too much.

Punch Drunk Love is a good movie. I'll not trip over myself anymore before I say that. It is better than most I have seen in 2002. Anderson's script is strong. He manages to pull a convincing, evocative performance from latter-day stooge Adam Sandler (it is easily Adam's best movie;I'll comment more on this later). There are strong performances from the cast, including a wonderfully understated Emily Watson as well as consistently good showings by Anderson regulars Philip Hoffman and Luis Guzman (in perhaps his most likable roll to date).

But I have one or two gripes that keep PDL from being a great movie, to my mind.

Anderson is enamoured with maintaining the most authentic sense of verisimilitude possible. He rebels against the idea that what happens in his movies are actually staged events. I like the idea, in principle. In one of the best uses in PDL, Barry attends a party with his sisters, but finds himself overwhelmed by both the sheer noise and clamor of the event, as well as the condescension he recieves from his family. Barry attempts conversation a couple of times, but quickly backs out of the quagmire. He quickly gains control of his situation by kicking in plate glass windows (an impressive feat, by the way).

In one of Anderson's more annoying attempts at verisimilitude: Barry attempts to use payphone along a parade route. The noise from the parade not only disrupts Barry's conversation, but also forces the audience to strain to hear everything going on within Barry's conversation. Perhaps the problem is mine for wanting at least a step toward closure with Barry's situation, and hearing what's going on over the phone will at least be a guidepost toward that closure. But keeping the audience engaged is likewise important. I remember thinking during this scene: Let's move on.

I'll talk for a second about the good.

My biggest complaint about Adam Sandler's movie career is the way his comedies force you to make a leap of faith in order to like or laugh at his characters. You have to accept this Cajun Simpleton in order to be able to laugh at him. He's a spoiled rich kid who has to go back through school. There are little leaps that you have to make. I need to see motivation.

We are introduced to Barry's family over the course of the film, and we are allowed a glimpse into his personal life. Oppressive is one way to describe it. Frustrating is perhaps another (considering much of Barry's personal seclusion is self-induced). Suffocating is the term I used while watching. Barry is drowning under the tidal wave of family and responsibility rather than surfing upon it.

I am able, then, to make that leap of faith. I can understand his situation. I would likewise be filled with rage.

A friend of mine referred to Adam as "the Angered One."

In Punch Drunk Love, Adam has legitimate cause to be angry. Is it funny? Sometimes. Is it convincing? Definitely.

My second gripe is not so much a gripe as an observation about what kept me from enjoying the movie completely.

I applaud Anderson for not pandering to the masses. There are too many stupid-ass movies out there that force themselves into a mold (whether due to studio pressure or otherwise). Anderson, to his credit, has fought studios to make his movies.

However, in his quest to maintain authenticity in his environments, create an ill-at-ease feeling with the audience, and basically do whatever he can to keep himself one step ahead of the audience, he does so often at the expense of fun.

You can make a statement and still have fun with it.

Punch Drunk Love, for all its qualities, is not terribly fun.

But then, I'm guessing Mr. Anderson doesn't give much a shit what I think. I applaud him for that much.


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