Punch drunk from modern life

Film - Philip Kerr finds too much psychobabble and urban angst hard to swallow

If this film is to be enjoyed, it needs to be approached with the diminished expectations of anyone going to see a movie starring Adam Sandler. The strange thing is, it's not a normal Sandler vehicle, in that it's directed by someone - Paul Thomas Anderson - who knows what he's doing. Anderson directed Boogie Nights and Magnolia, but you have to forget about those pictures because, sadly, Punch Drunk Love isn't in the same league. If you go and see this movie imagining that it's going to be as good as Magnolia (which, by the way, was much overrated), then you're certain to be disappointed. But if you expect it to be no better than Little Nicky or Mister Deeds, then it's possible you might actually enjoy it. You get the idea.

Regular readers of the NS will know I am not a fan of Sandler; but the last time I was in the States, the TV and newspapers were all reporting that PDL was "easily one of the best movies of the year" (Orlando Sentinel) and that Adam Sandler, "liberated from the constraints of formula, reveals unexpected depths as an actor" (Chicago Sun-Times). I bought the hype. I went and saw the movie, actually expecting that some of this was going to be true. Hooray for you, I told myself. You're the kind of guy who's ready to give Adam Sandler an even break. Besides, I told myself, the film co-stars Emily Watson and well, you've always rather fancied her, ever since she made love to a cello in Hilary and Jackie. If Emily was in the movie, then how bad could it be?

The film starts promisingly enough. Barry Egan (Sandler) works for a company selling novelty plumbing supplies, though his mind is really on a harmless little scam he has going involving air miles. He is a lonely, neurotic man living under the tyranny of seven sisters, and his huge anger at the world for making him feel like a jerk is never far below the surface. Working late one night, he goes outside for a breath of air. A second or two later, a van draws up and dumps a harmonium on the street right in front of Barry, who legs it back to his office carrying the instrument.

The presence of this harmonium is never explained, but I would guess that we are supposed to believe that it is somehow symbolic of a change in the heavenly scheme of things vis-a-vis Barry. That maybe God has stopped playing Barry's keyboard and decided to let him hit some notes of his own, for good or bad. This probably dignifies the significance of the harmonium, however, and perhaps it might be more accurate to suggest that it's just an eccentric little device conjured out of the air by a pretentious director who's looking to endow his otherwise inconsequential picture with some meaning.

Almost as eccentric is why Lena (Emily Watson) should ever fall for a dork like Barry. It's true that she's British, and Americans do perceive this to be eccentric per se; we talk in a strange way, read books, sometimes walk instead of driving, and hold George Bush to be the biggest idiot ever to hold senior office. And it's possible that I found Lena's being attracted to Barry to be just a tad more peculiar than the average American would have done. After all, Sandler is a star, and Watson is just an English girl who speaks nicely, which is movie code for being repressed and sexually frustrated. Anyway, these two people, punch drunk from life in the modern world, I suppose, fall for each other, in an "inadequate American moron meets Brit" kind of way.

More plot arrives in the shape of Barry's guilty secret; prior to meeting Lena he calls a sex line, only to find himself being blackmailed by the incompetent - in the shape of Philip Seymour Hoffman - who runs the service. Following a romantic interlude with Lena in Hawaii, Barry fesses up to Lena about the sex line. Ouch.

This is a shrink's picture, written and directed by someone who looks like they ate too much Freud. It even comes with a sort of Rorschach light show and a dissonant soundtrack that seems designed to make you feel as out of synch with modern life as Barry is. Watching PDL, I began to feel like Tony Soprano sitting in Doctor Melfi's office, confronted with a whole load of psychobabble about alienation and urban angst.

Is anger management the way forward for Barry? Who is to blame for Barry's low self-esteem? Barry loves Lena. But will Lena find it within her timid British heart to forgive him? Finally, as the credits rolled - mercifully, a lot sooner than expected, for the picture is just 82 minutes long - I shook my head impatiently. Who cares anyway?

Punch Drunk Love (15) is on general release