I love it when actors do the contrary.
When comedians do serious fare. When serious actors do comedy. It's a little gimmicky, but I like it nonetheless. The only problem is that when this happens it usually has less to do with performance and more to do with marketing. It's not honest.
But when I first saw the names Adam Sandler and Paul Thomas Anderson together, my interest perked. A comedian doing more serious fare and a serious director doing something a little more comedic (Your peanut butter is in my chocolate. No your chocolate is in my peanut butter).
And I wasn't disappointed. Punch Drunk Love is a romantic comedy like no other. Just ask the dozen or so people that walked out within the first 15 minutes expecting another Waterboy or 50 First Dates. They should have stayed because what followed for the next hour and twenty minutes was a romance sliced like no other before it.
There's no reason why it should work between Lena (Emily Watts) and Barry (Adam Sandler) and maybe it doesn't once the cameras turn off. The two are about as contrary as you can get. Barry is a sad sack that's constantly haunted by his seven sisters controlling his every move and that has made him a bit strange. Before he meets Lena, his happiest moments are at the grocery store buying Healthy Choice Pudding and fantasizing where he's going to go with all the airline miles he's going to win through the loophole he's discovered in the sweepstakes. Lena on the other hand is a sweet attractive woman who in reality could do much better than Barry. But maybe she needs a project. Or maybe she's as lonely as Barry and it is their attention towards one another that fulfills their relationship. Either way, it works because as the title suggests, it doesn't matter how weird and wacky love gets, you just go with it.
It's true that Adam Sandler does an excellent job as Barry. Paul Thomas Anderson made a wise choice in casting him, using his physical awkwardness as an advantage. And Sandler has always had an intensity about him that has consistently come out in his comedy. Anderson uses this to show the desperation in Barry's character, as first seen in the violent conclusion of the birthday party. And every time Philip Seymour Hoffman steps in front of the camera, he is solid gold as Dean the sleazy owner of a mattress warehouse that doubles as a phone sex operation. But really there are two scenes that make this movie for me.
The first is when Barry and Lena are in bed together. They engage in some very strange pillow talk.
Barry: I'm lookin' at your face and I just wanna smash it. I just wanna fuckin' smash it with a sledgehammer and squeeze it. You're so pretty.
Lena: I want to chew your face, and I want to scoop out your eyes and I want to eat them and chew them and suck on them.
Barry: OK. This is funny. This is nice.
This is the first real connection between the two, albeit a strange one. But it's simple and honest. All guards are down and they are both putting themselves out there for one another. There's no trial time with this relationship, no chance of warming up. This is the way that Barry is and Lena reciprocates in kindness.
The second scene is towards the end when Barry confronts Dean at the mattress warehouse.
Barry: I didn't do anything. I'm a nice man. I mind my own business. So you tell me that's that before I beat the hell from you. I have so much strength in me you have no idea. I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine. I would say that's that mattress man.
In this paragraph of dialogue is the core of the movie and really the core of every romantic movie. Love makes you feel great. It makes you feel like you can do anything. But no one has captured it like this. They've given the character a little more spring in his step, or made him nice when he was mean before, but no movie made the character invincible. And that's what love is when you take Hollywood away. It's invincibility. Dean could be ten times Barry's size and Barry would have said the same thing because nothing can bring him down. Not his past, his sisters, not the fear of a strange man, and certainly not the unknowns of his newfound relationship.
This movie is more than Adam Sandler and Paul Thomas Anderson going against type. It's about two unlikely people falling hard, and we can't help but fall right with them.