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New Sandler movie hardly a knockout

Scott Cunningham

Everyone who has reviewed this movie seems positively bowled over by the realization that Adam Sandler can act, as if comedic acting isn’t real acting. If that’s true, why are there less truly funny actors than competent dramatic ones? To further the irony, this isn’t even one of Sandler’s best performances. He is a very good actor; he’s been one since his Saturday Night Live days; and he doesn’t need ber-L.A. auteur Paul Thomas Anderson to make him one.When Anderson, director of such epics as Magnolia and Boogie Nights, decided to make an Adam Sandler picture, he immediately put himself into competition with esteemed directors Dennis Dugan (Happy Gilmore, Beverly Hills Ninja), Tamra Davis (Billy Madison, Crossroads), and Steven Brill (Little Nicky, Heavyweights), not exactly anyone’s short-list for the future of American filmmaking. But he still lost.His creation Barry Egan (Sandler) runs his own small business selling wholesale candy dispensers out of a garage in the San Fernando Valley. It’s a really ugly place, and the opposite of what you’d expect for the main location of a romantic comedy. After Barry meets and falls in love with Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), he goes to Hawaii, and the contrast between the two is one of the funnier jokes of the film.Honestly, there was very little laughing going on during the showing I attended, but that may have been Anderson’s intention. He’s a Los Angeles native, sets all of his movies in the Valley, and makes films for a decidedly L.A. crowd. More than any other director, he’s out of touch with the rest of the population of the United States, so when he makes a genre picture like this, it feels like he’s screening it specifically for Kenneth Turan, Harvey Weinstein, and Andrew Sarris. I didn’t feel invited.The populist element of the picture, Sandler, is on paper his usual self. He’s a bit of a loser by his own choosing, pissed at the world, and unlucky in love. Anderson says he wanted to take Sandler’s schtick and add some dramatic gravity, which he does, but he loses all of the appeal of Sandler in the process.In Billy Madison, Sandler’s character is also out of touch with reality–he sees penguins–but his boyish wit allows us to side with him. Barry Egan’s character flaw is that he’s inarticulate past the point of interesting. Instead of stumbling over his words and saying anything but what he’s thinking, he says nothing, or comes up with really boring lies. In a true romantic comedy, Egan would be talkative and inarticulate, not silent and inarticulate, and the woman whose love transforms him would allow him to finally say exactly what he means.Instead, Lena elicits “oh by the way” admissions of guilt from Barry. Perhaps more realistic, but certainly less interesting, and Anderson’s strength has always been that he’s more beholden to “interesting” than to “realistic.”Punch Drunk Love is the opposite of Magnolia, Boogie Nights, and Hard Eight, movies with sub-par story lines saved by excellence of craft; it’s a good story that’s poorly done. It promises a less-cartonnish violence from Sandler and a deeper, more emotionally-satisfying love, but it falls short. It’s the same Sandler character, just not as funny.


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