Adam Sandler has always been a stylized human being. With his wavery voice of idiot sincerity, he’s the court jester of nudnicks, his dark hair cropped short enough to make his noggin look like a coconut, his id erupting in slapstick spasms of jack-in-the-box rage. In Punch-Drunk Love, the deeply rich and strange new romantic comedy written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, the Sandler we see is, in essence, the same Sandler we have come to know, to love, and (for some) to loathe, except that the movie isn’t nudging us in the ribs to laugh at him. The camera hangs back, peering at Sandler inquiringly, inviting us to study him as if he were a shy creature at the zoo (Doofus americanus?). What we see is a gangly, hunched, and very, very isolated young man who looks like a guilt-ridden choirboy, his cheeks graced by twin parenthetical laugh lines that might be the dimples of a saddened angel.
As Barry Egan, the loser-geek owner of a novelty toilet-plunger company who sits all day in a Los Angeles warehouse, wearing a hideously overbright electric-blue suit, Sandler, for the first time, removes the quote marks from his famous personality, and he is utterly winning to watch. His Barry hems and haws and misspeaks, but only because he’s barely confident enough to believe that anyone is listening. He’s touchingly bewildered. He sits with his hands clasped and flashes a nervous grimace, and when he can’t deal with his lowly, anonymous place in the universe, he’ll purge his pressure-cooker brain with an impromptu act of violence — like, say, trashing a public restroom. The jolt of Sandler’s anger is so incongruous it’s funny, only now it’s also a little scary, because damned if it doesn’t look real. Sandler the knockabout Prince of Dumb may or may not be a full-fledged actor in ”Punch-Drunk Love,” but he has become a tender and arresting presence, like a fusion of Chaplin’s Little Tramp, Woody Allen, and Edward Scissorhands.
The key to Barry is that he’s overwhelmed, and the bedazzled empathy of Anderson’s images seduces us into following him wherever he goes — out to an L.A. boulevard at dawn, for instance, where Barry witnesses an is-this-really-happening? car crash and then picks up a harmonium deposited there by a cab. Barry has seven sisters who smother him with a condescension that flirts with abuse, and his job is a banal nightmare of paper pushing. But then the movie swings him into the orbit of the adorable, saucer-eyed Lena (Emily Watson), who actually falls for him. Can we believe that a perfectly normal woman would embrace this stammering goofball? To even ask the question is to reject the film’s hyperreal wavelength of solipsistic romanticism. Lena is attracted to Barry because she looks into his heart and sees a reflection of what the audience watching the movie sees in Sandler: a fumbling misfit who is all thumbs because he is all feeling.
Anderson, the virtuosic creator of ”Boogie Nights,” that hypnotic canvas of porn, pleasure, and dread, as well as the facile, overstuffed ”Magnolia,” doesn’t just think with the camera. He uses it to create sequences that are flowing musical-visual tone poems. There’s one set in Barry’s office that’s scored to the percussive rhythms of his anxiety, as well as a moonstruck interlude in Hawaii that unfolds against the dweeb-chic rapture of Shelley Duvall singing ”He Needs Me” (from ”Popeye”). ”Punch-Drunk Love” is a P.T. Anderson picture that’s also a bona fide Adam Sandler comedy, but more than that, it’s a David Lynch movie, a cosmic daydream that lures Sandler the overgrown lost boy into a vortex where the power of love fights the pull of darkness.
Lonely yet touchy about his privacy, Barry, in a sequence that’s a masterly expression of nerd paranoia, tentatively calls a phone-sex line. In that one mistake, which comes back to haunt him throughout the film, you can hear a grace-note echo of ”Boogie Nights”: the embrace of commercialized sex, however innocent and fleeting, dividing people off from love, and from themselves. Barry’s rages are like compartmentalized arias, and even the secret scheme he comes up with has an element of self-undercutting delusion. He has figured out that through a coupon glitch, he can amass enough frequent-flier miles to last a lifetime by purchasing $3,000 worth of Healthy Choice pudding cups. But what, exactly, does Barry want the miles for? He’s got the scheme worked out before he even knows what it feels like to fly.
It’s Lena who teaches him. In Hawaii, the two of them lie in bed, playfully threatening to do gruesome things to each other’s faces; it’s the gentlest expression imaginable of the beastly side of love. Neither the scene nor the relationship is meant to be realistic. But Watson’s character, a maternal saint, feels underwritten (why couldn’t she have had a few quirks to match up with Barry’s?), and the result is that ”Punch-Drunk Love” is quietly sweet, even resonant, without ever being truly moving. You may be captivated, as I was, by its moods, and by its subtly transformed star, and still wonder why Paul Thomas Anderson ever had the inclination to make the most sincere and artful movie in which Adam Sandler will probably ever appear.