ARTS

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October 18, 2002

Punch-Drunk Love director needs a good punch or two

Punch-Drunk Love

Directed by P.T. Anderson

Columbia Pictures

89 minutes

The headline of a recent New York Times article hails Paul Thomas Anderson "A Poet of Love." In an industry where every word of print and mouth equals a measure of relevance and commercial viability in Pop Culture, that one is likely to hit you with a solid bang on every ad coming to a TV spot near you. And it won't exactly be just any quote, it'll be the goddamn New York Times quote, that singular institution before which you are required to kowtow by the dictates of the free market economy; and those strange chills climbing up your spine aren't necessarily accidental.

I can assure you though the piece was written by a man, or more precisely Dave Kehr, Maroon alum and second-string film critic in my book. This is not the alarming part, mind you, but it's that Anderson (billed as "P.T. Anderson," which has an unremarkably cute ring) is getting away with good ol' fraud in the artistic vein. Just what exactly is Mr. Kehr implying by crowning Anderson as "one of the most original voices of his generation?" Possibility number one: Worrrd up. I'm high as the mystical mountains. Possibility number two: This is just my sardonically pretentious way of pointing out cinematic decay and modern life's anomie. Possibility number three: No joke, man; can't you take me seriously? I'm reviewing movies from Uzbekistan, while Stephen Holden gets to chew on White Oleander. Ohhh...the injustice!

If Anderson merits the word "original" in any context, it is in the way he has spectacularly plagiarized other filmmakers—namely Jonathan Demme and Martin Scorsese—literally copying their signature shots frame by frame, a deed he freely admits to having committed over and over and which he justifies by referring us to Truffaut and Max Ophüls as having been their influences. Despite the analogy that I don't quite accept here, I presume Anderson had no qualms about remaking Robert Altman's Short Cuts with the title Magnolia. But crimes and misdemeanors aside, the rabid raves his new movie has been reaping by the dozens surely mean something on their own terms. Possibly that some unwittingly tolerant critics prefer dumb quirky movies to just plain dumb movies, the only reasonable hypothesis I can come up with right now. But really, Anderson may easily whiz by the grand stations of film criticism, but his choo-choo train gets derailed here.

Punch-Drunk Love might be described as a bauble of a movie; rapturously stylistic and carefully choreographed to the punctuations of filmic rhythm but devoid of the soulfulness and inner sense of being possessed by the works of cinema's recognized auteurs. What Anderson has shown as yet indicates his precocious learning of craftsmanship and the understanding of the gears behind every lens, only the flash and the techniques are his distractions from fulfilling the mind behind his own art object.

The opening scene shows a man behind a desk on a telephone. Comic hilarity ensues with a whimsical conversation. The matter for the moment hangs not in the conversation, but a low-angle shot that pits the man against the far corner of the screen. There is no intrinsic necessity for the very shot, or even an aesthetic logic, only the veneer of exhibitionism. Throughout the first sequence of events, we see and hear: a bizarre car accident that defies the rules of physics, the noise of an empty can rolling around in an empty lot, the sudden visceral impact of a garage door being slid open, and an harmonium that is dropped off a street pavement by a taxicab. These slight occurrences—some of them assaultive to the senses—exist to assert Anderson's offbeat style, but add nothing crucial to the work itself. Is there really any purpose to the taxi that an ordinary automobile could not live up to?

Infected with hysteria, Anderson's camera is as impatient as his instincts. Not a single moment is rendered without the insert of visual gimmickry and panache—quick cuts, shots panning in and out of spaces—which for as long as redundancy is avoided can be fun to look at. But his fear that we will become simply bored with him overwhelms every other aspect of his picture. The shots do not collude to anything else but themselves; this, seemingly, is the only point Anderson is capable of making. The story then is completely negligible and secondary.

The setting is the motel-diner suburbs of the San Fernando Valley. And Barry Egan is a 30-ish man in the business of selling—of all things—wholesale toilet plungers. A sociopathic misfit by day and night, he calls a phone-sex operator in his bachelor apartment to suppress his dreary solitude, and begins clipping pudding coupons for frequent-flier miles. The source of his misery is alluded to: his seven scurrilous sisters, who hellishly run in and out of his life, often tormenting him with what one might interpret as convivial harassments. The characters are neurotic, arrogant and unattractive, but Anderson treats them as comic varieties, a mistake. And yet their dysfunctional behaviors do not characterize their personalities but only serve a pattern of creating effects comic, tragic and otherwise.

Then there is Lena Leonard, a British gal introduced to Barry as a potential light of hope and redemption. With a saintly persona and an incandescent face on the side, she is the ballast to Barry's psychology. Here's the mystery. Why would anyone like her fall in love with someone who resorts to violent behavior when angered in the slightest degree? The answer is simple: Barry Egan is Billy Madison is Happy Gilmore is Bobby Boucher is Adam Sandler. It becomes quite clear that Punch-Drunk Love is a vehicle, the hobbyhorse Anderson slaps and rides around with the hope that this will amuse us, as much as it amuses him. Adam Sandler, an unsuccessfully comic actor, got the tail end of the stick with Emily Watson as Lena being dragged through the mud.

For a filmmaker who has affectionately drawn out the portraits of wounded characters in need of caretakers, Anderson has apparently gotten lazy. In spite of the razzle-dazzle pyrotechnics of Boogie Nights and Magnolia with whatever effort Anderson put in to mimic the art of his superiors, the characters were strongly felt, as fragile as they were. This film begs to differ; only in the most vain reaches of a filmmaker's soul would a Brit fall unfathomably in love with an Adam Sandler character in the San Fernando Valley. But then, P.T. Anderson may be just that kind of a soul. There's punch, there's drunk, but there's absolutely no love.