What happens when a Hollywood star and an iconoclast director join forces
Brian D. JohnsonOctober142002
What happens when a Hollywood star and an iconoclast director join forces
BRIAN D. JOHNSON
FIRST A CONFESSION. I used to tell people that I had a no-Adam Sandler clause in my contract. It was a joke, of course. I didn’t have a contract. But for years, I managed to do my job as film critic without seeing a single Adam Sandler movie. I’d never liked him when he was on Saturday Night Live—never liked Opera Man, or the sophomoric folk ditties, or the smug, giggling complicity with the audience. As for his films, the trailers were all it took to dissuade me. There’s not enough time or space to review all the bad movies I end up seeing unintentionally without actively seeking them out. Sandler’s fans, I’m sure, would consider that snobbish and unprofessional. So be it. My fellow critics at the newspapers— who have to review every damn movie that gets released—assured me I wasn’t missing anything.
In a weak moment, however, I saw Little Nicky, in which Sandler plays a whiny, obnoxious son of Satan. It confirmed my
worst fears. Sandlerites later tried to tell me Nicky was an aberration, a low point in Adam’s oeuvre. But I vowed, never again.
Then last spring, the Sandman showed up where you would least expect him—on the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival, the high altar of cinematic art. He was there as the star of Punch-Drunk Love, the latest feature from Paul Thomas Anderson, one of America’s hottest, and most adventurous, young directors. After Boogie Nights (1997), Anderson’s shagadelic saga of a ’70s porn star, and Magnolia, his sprawling canvas of Los Angeles angst, Punch-Drunk Love comes as a wild departure. Clocking in at a brisk 89 minutes, it’s an off-kilter romantic comedy that’s more disturbing than funny, more scary than sweet—a switchblade fable with a serrated edge of the absurd. And if I get tied up in metaphoric knots trying to describe it,
that’s because it doesn’t fit any known genre. It’s the mongrel offspring of a Hollywood star and an iconoclast director, the progeny of a weird marriage between the studio mainstream and the arty frontier of American cinema.
Last month, interviewing Anderson at the Toronto International Film Festival, I showed up armed with all kinds of theories, about how he has cast a franchise player in an art film—the equivalent of serving steak tartar at McDonald’s. But Anderson would have none of it. “I don’t consider that Adam Sandler makes franchise Hollywood comedies,” the 32-yearold director insisted. “There was a time when the most interesting thing to me was watching his movies. If I was a little down, I would get stoned on a Saturday night and watch an Adam Sandler movie and have a helluva lot of fun. I wanted a piece of that. Especially after Magnolia, I wanted to do something lighter and happier and kinda go off a cliff.”
Punch-Drunk Love opens with an uppercut out of the blue, a sequence of non sequiturs so astounding I’m loath to give away the beginning of this movie, never mind the ending. Let’s just say it involves three vehicles and a harmonium on a deserted street at dawn.
Sandler plays Barry, a lonely misfit harassed by seven sisters who call him Gay Boy. He runs his own business selling novelty toilet plungers out of a warehouse in the San Fernando Valley. Although he has never been on an airplane, Barry is buying up $3,000 worth of instant puddings in an attempt to amass a million air miles. (A guy in California actually did this.) Meanwhile, his humdrum life is derailed from two directions. After paying for phone sex, he falls prey to a gang of extortionists led by a Utah mattress salesman (Philip Seymour Hoffman). And he’s courted by a frequent flyer named Lena (Emily Watson) who’s strangely unfazed by how screwed up he is.
Ambushing the viewer at every turn, Anderson gives us a scared (and scary) Adam Sandler, lost and alone in a Where’s Waldo? maze of suburban gothic style. The movie is exquisitely directed. It’s set in a graphic wasteland of stripmall corridors, industrial laneways and big-box stores. But it’s accented with a whimsy reminiscent of Jacques Tati or The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Anderson pushes the soundtrack, a junkyard of wonky percussion, boldly into the foreground. The movie plays like a repressed musical, Kafka in Wonderland. Then occasionally he drops in a swirling interlude of colour bars, to a score that sounds a lot like the theme from Around the World in 80 Days—another frequent-flyer joke.
Sandler’s character is like the one he plays in all his movies—a gullible naïf with a stubborn sense of purpose and a hairtrigger temper. The nerd who finds his inner superman. But his performance is free of the usual mannerisms, that infantile mewling. This is a raw, stripped-down Sandler, and his psychotic edge is much closer to the surface. When he puts his fist through a glass door, or excuses himself during dinner to rip apart the men’s room with his bare hands, the violence is frightening, not funny. And when you get to the movie’s most tender moment, when he tells Lena ever so sweetly, “I’m looking at your face and I just want to smash it with a sledgehammer you’re so pretty,” you know you’re not in an Adam Sandler movie; you’re in a P.T. Anderson film.
SO WHEN P.T. ASKS me what I think of it, he gets a complicated answer. He’s sitting on a hotel patio in Toronto, holding off lighting the cigarette in his hand. He listens with intense, catlike eyes that go from green to amber, and a mouth that has a nervous twitch. I talk about his movie’s alien architecture, and how suburbia has become the landscape of choice for a new breed of American film about repression and transgression—from The Good Girl to One Hour Photo, which both feature dangerously lonely men working in big-box stores.
P.T. looks nonplussed. “I’m from the Valley,” he says. “There’s really no choosing it. That’s just where I’m from. It’s just shooting where I live—it was the same with Magnolia and Boogie Nights.”
“The story’s constructed like a chain reaction of unpredictable events. Was it written that way? Or did you map it out?”
“I can’t map anything out. I can’t even find my car keys half the time.”
“So where did it come from?”
“Wanting to get out of my house. Wanting to work with Adam. Wanting to work with Emily. Wanting to have a har-
monium in the movie. You just think about things you’d like to see. But sitting down to make the movie, the only thing on my mind was figuring out how to make people laugh. I don’t have any big ideas.”
This doesn’t seem like the best time to point out that Punch-Drunk Love, while brimming with wit, is not laugh-out-loud funny. Anderson already seems touchy about any suggestion that he ended up making a serious, less-commercial Adam Sandler movie, an Unhappy Gilmore. And when I offer the McDonald’s steak tartar analogy, it hits a nerve.
“That’s bullshit!” he says. “That’s defeatist. I don’t know what to do with that or what to think—this notion that he makes McDonald’s movies. It’s just about communicating, and that’s what I’ve tried
‘If I was a little down,’ says the director, ‘I would get stoned on a Saturday night and watch an Adam Sandler movie and have a helluva lot of fun.’
to learn from him. When you walk down the street with him, I’ve never seen anything like it, how people respond. He’s so giving. People respond so well to his movies because he’s trustworthy. And he’s in this movie. It’s Adam Sandler and it’s about love and romance and all the rest. Why should it be any different?”
Because it is. For once, Sandler’s anger is no joke. Although everyone agrees that the actor is the ultimate nice guy offscreen, all his characters hinge on a hairtrigger temper. “There’s a real streak of mystery to him, a real dangerous quality,” says Anderson. “And it’s about keeping himself honest. Here’s one of the most beautiful things in the world: Adam Sandler doesn’t do press interviews. There are not a lot of stars who have become so famous so quickly who have never used the media to present an image. You don’t know who he is. He can be the character.” Before leaving, Anderson urges me to give Sandler’s work another chance—“get stoned on a Saturday night and watch those movies and have a ball.” I’ve now seen Mr. Deeds, Happy Gilmore and The Wedding Singer. And even unstoned on a weeknight, I found them kind of funny. But if I were going to get high on a Saturday night, I’d rather revisit PunchDrunk Love and get totally paranoid. íiül
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