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Those who cringed at the idea of collaboration between Adam Sandler and arthouse darling Paul Thomas Anderson have not paid enough attention to either man's work. Sandler, despite some awful movies, has a deep reserve of anguish inside him that has always made him a better candidate for the de rigueur "comedian goes legit" role than most funnymen. He's more grounded than Jim Carrey, more believably sad than the sad-clownish Robin Williams. And Anderson has worked wonders in the past with actors — Mark Wahlberg, Burt Reynolds — who have been dismissed by critics or accused of coasting on popular appeal.

The film's first scene will scare those who recoiled at Magnolia's "I am genius, hear me roar" moments (the frogs, the sing-along). Two sudden, outrageous things happen back-to-back, and neither is greeted by a believable real-world response. One of these is when a cab drops a harmonium on the sidewalk, then speeds off mysteriously. The keyboard sits there patiently, and you just know Aimee Mann is about to walk out and play the movie's theme, no explanation given.

She doesn't, and thus passes the film's primary moment of auteur-audience antagonism. From here on, the conflict will be between Sandler and his environment, between innocently oddball love and a world dead-set against it. Sandler's Barry Egan has been raised in a house full of sisters, siblings who have unwittingly destroyed his self-esteem. He's a pressure cooker, prone to blowing his top in short, frightened outbursts of violence; as he tells a brother-in-law, he doesn't like himself.

Enter Emily Watson, whose Lena clearly has her own emotionally crippling backstory, though we never hear it. She sees through Barry's erratic behavior, honing in on something essential — much like those of us who have suffered through Sandler movies such as Little Nicky, waiting for this breakthrough. What follows is a romantic comedy updated for the angst age. Instead of aping Hollywood's golden era (as Nora Ephron's hits do), Anderson gives us a tale for our own.

Matching style to substance, Anderson keeps his camera moving, as if love were a heavy thing on wheels, liable to roll out of reach if the ground shifts the wrong way. And what's inside the moving frame keeps that tension going: The image is filled with sunburst lens flares, little glimmers of the radiant love that lies just over the horizon for Barry, if only he can extricate himself from the nasty spot he's in right now.

That nastiness is a menacing subplot that runs throughout, a bit of trouble that is as random as the slapstick destruction filling the movie, but linked to a moment in which Barry, desperate, did something stupid: Looking for someone to talk to about his life, he called a phone sex line, and gave the prying operator all the information she wanted. He's not to blame for what the villains on the other end of the line do with his personal information, but they keep saying he is. "This is what you get when you're a pervert," they tell him, though sex was the last thing on Barry's mind. As the phone-sex guys squeeze Barry, the film tightens its grip on us, a nail-biting suspense made more potent by the gentle courtship at its center.

It's a suspense made possible by the very nature of its star, a child-man in whom blind fury and boundless puppy-dog love sit side-by-side. This is a perfect P.T. Anderson movie. It's also the performance that should make Adam Sandler's detractors, to steal a line from Punch-Drunk's villain, "Shut- shut- shut- shut- SHUT UP!"

Punch-Drunk Love
"Knockout in one round"
Dir. and writ. Paul Thomas Anderson; feat. Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Luis Guzmán, Mary Lynn Rajskub (R)

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More by John DeFore

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