California Sweet

Film still for California Sweet

Punch-drunk Love amiably resets Adam Sandler in a tougher, less commercial context, but will Hollywood continue to allow the talented P.T. Anderson to do as he wants, asks David Thomson.

For anyone who has felt unnerved by the rocket-like ascent of Paul Thomas Anderson, and bewildered when that assault on the sky produced a rainstorm of frogs in Magnolia, Punch-drunk Love may seem like the opportunity for feeling superior and telling the rest of us, "I told you so." Long before the climax of the Christmas season in America, and despite its inclusion of Adam Sandler, the new picture had vanished. It's as if, during one of the many corridor shots, with characters traipsing away from the camera but hardly getting anywhere, the sparse audience had taken its lesson. The getaway seems all the more pardonable in that you can't believe Anderson sees any other destination except a final, fond embrace between Sandler and Emily Watson, the return of pretty colours and the strange, droning theme song 'He Needs Me' that runs more riffs on the word 'needs' than even Philip Seymour Hoffman can contrive on "Shut the Fuck Up!"

I loved it, but I was one of those at the time who thought we needed a spot of frogs.

Explanations for why anyone saw fit to do Punch-drunk Love can keep. Maybe it was a mercifully minor, aimless excursion for a director (still only 32) whose first three films - Hard Eight (1996), Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999) - are unrivalled recently for their complexity, assurance and wrenching human content. Still, don't fall into the easy notion that nothing is happening in Punch-drunk Love. A true film-maker is doodling and having fun with an actor way removed from his regular stock company. Time may tell what was learned.

And Barry Egan (Sandler) is a fascinating misfit - "I think he's weird," says one of his five sisters, "But that's me." Barry lives alone in Sherman Oaks and gets to work pre-dawn so he can do a bit of private telephoning - like checking with the makers of Healthy Choice chocolate pudding that their air miles-for-pudding offer isn't a misprint, but truly a way for an industrious lad to put a few thousand dollars in pudding and end up with a million miles of free air travel. We see Barry in a gorgeous 'Scope frame, at his desk in a bare room, in the corner, where a lower strip of wall is painted a grey-blue that really hits it off with Barry's bright-blue suit. The office isn't really a place where Barry needs to wear a suit - the other guys, when they come in to work later, are in jeans. But Barry thought the suit would be nice. And Barry aspires to niceness.

He is an honest trier. He wants to be a success, to get on, to be popular and to find the kind of girl who'll make him strong. But when he slides up the door to open up and looks down the side alley to the street, he sees a red Checker cab somersaulting down the empty roadway, but still able to stop and drop off a harmonium - as if it were a delivery. Such things disturb Barry, and he's pretty helpless when Lena (Watson), wearing two shades of pink in her white car, comes by - too early - to drop off her car for repair at the next-door garage. He just about manages to look after it for her and then, all nerves, goes up to the street, gathers up the harmonium in his childish embrace and totters back with it.

I know, when I stress the two shades of pink and the white car, you're inclined to think this film doesn't have much else on its mind except being cute and pretty. And, truly, it doesn't make any more demands of Emily Watson than telling her, you walk back up the alley to the street, and we'll let the camera track along behind you, and you'll be pleased to see how good you look from behind in two shades of pink.

Apart from that, it's quite possible to believe that Anderson and Sandler arrived on set each morning and said, "OK, what shall we do today?" And Sandler kept saying he'd like to take his nerd persona a little deeper, a little further into paranoia and rage, so Anderson quickly sketched out a kind of ordeal for Barry that would play out tidily with Philip Seymour Hoffman eventually, in a mattress company in Provo, Utah, telling him to shut the fuck up.

No, it doesn't sound promising, and I'm not here to persuade you that this is a masterpiece. But Barry is interesting. Those five sisters are like witches, and they gang up to bully him into going to a party so they can recollect how they all used to call Barry "gay boy". "Are you gay now?" they ask, and Barry mumbles about not knowing. But he meets the five brothers-in-law - hulking, beer-drinking guys - and finally takes one of them, the doctor, aside for a little private professional advice. "I don't like myself," he admits. "Can you help me?" And the brother-in-law owns up to being just a dentist. Barry admits that he cries a lot for no reason. And he cries. Well, don't we all - or at least, we do if we've ever been people fit for a Paul Thomas Anderson film.

Later on, in his loneliness, Barry reaches out for phone sex and gives all his private information to an operator who then puts him on to Georgia. "I am lying on my bed," she tells him. "I'm wearing a T-shirt and panties, and I'm looking at my shaved pussy in the mirror." This doesn't do a lot for Barry, but soon enough the powers behind Georgia are hijacking him for all the cash he can get out of his ATM and generally playing him for a loser.

But Emily Watson is at hand - in blues and whites as well as pinks - and being both sweet and sexy with hardly a script word to go on. And lo and behold the pudding paradise will come through. Barry has the miles to go travelling with her.

I don't mean to suggest that Paul Thomas Anderson is flexing new muscles here. If Adam Sandler means to make more of himself, that's fine; but I suspect that prolonged company would make less of Anderson. As it is, Luis Guzmán has scarcely a thing to do and Philip Seymour Hoffman may have been enlisted just to help persuade some viewers (and Anderson himself) that this is really one of his films. There's an intriguing undertone of helpless violence or anger in Barry, but Punch-drunk Love never contends for the kind of lyrical dysfunction or family breakdown that has marked Anderson's earlier work.

But nothing can still this director's camera. From that very first shot, the lugubrious exposition of vacant space (as opposed to space crying out for human energy) is comic and forlorn. But never as heavy with danger as, say, in Magnolia or Boogie Nights. Still, Anderson remains one of the great visionaries of suburban southern California: he can see the pink sky in the morning blooming in the Valley just as he can render the arid, soulless availability of a Sherman Oaks apartment. And this picture is crowded with extended, meandering takes where the persistence of the camera and the half-lost, half-stunned prowling of the characters are in lovely harmony. It's something between a prison and an adventure park, and it suggests how far southern California has evolved into a place where the beautiful movements of Mann or Murnau have become numbed by surveillance systems.

In Punch-drunk Love you never forget the recollection of Anderson as someone who loves to let the camera loose on the essential indecisiveness of lost souls. Of course, he's always been at his best with characters and actors who can hardly do anything without revealing alternative strategies. That's true of Hard Eight, where so much of the time the would-be energy of characters ends in dither or hesitation (like a roulette ball uncertain which slot to fall into); of the hair-raising drug scene in Boogie Nights, one of the most desperate moments in American cinema, where you feel one wrong laugh or restless move could set off bombs; and of the steady stripping away of lies and illusions in Magnolia that leaves so many of the characters like frogs out of water, gasping for air.

But Magnolia is plainly a tough act to follow, and if Anderson has so far made three 'independent' films where the system let him do more or less as he pleased, then surely it's clear by now the jeopardy that early success inflicts on him. After all, how long can the natural order of things in Hollywood let a very talented person go on doing as he wants for a few million dollars at a time? Magnolia won rare praise and awards without doing much serious business. For the large audience, it's a confusing and frustrating network of short stories (obviously affected by Short Cuts), but electing so much more fanciful a climax and crisis in going for a curse of frogs instead of one of those script-friendly Angeleno earthquakes. Anderson knows that LA people are so jittery, so shaky, so caught up in lies that an earthquake is a vulgar objective correlative for their malaise. But they are also so stricken by furtive beliefs that a biblical plague is a real eye-opener.

How does a 32-year-old retain his elusiveness? How does he not succumb to success in some of the ways that have made Quentin Tarantino such an absentee? How does he let the friendly business trust him with more small, private subjects? And how does he live with the way so many of his family of actors have become stars in just a few years? It's very tough that a Julianne Moore gets booked up with big projects and price tags no one can blame her for wanting. Still, in all those bigger pictures is Moore going to dig deeper into herself than she did in Boogie Nights or Magnolia? Isn't it more likely she'll begin to be crushed by large, obvious, dramatic roles? In which case why are we surprised if Anderson suddenly jumps his own tracks and finds more sport in the unlikely form of Adam Sandler?

Of course, Punch-drunk Love is already a famous failure, which will give many idiots the confidence to lecture Anderson and set him straight. And he may find it increasingly difficult to ignore what they say and to extricate himself from their career-building strategies. When a director wants to be himself in Hollywood, and when he's done well enough to draw attention - that's when liberty becomes as hard to find as family rituals in Sherman Oaks. And Anderson's fondness for people is not obvious to the idiots. They can see only that he tends to make pictures about people that frighten the audience. So the advice begins - be normal, be straightforward, Paul, speak from your heart. In the end that humbug is the surest proof that an American director has made it to first base and poses a threat - that he has a film head on his shoulders.

Anderson strikes me as by far the most talented of the new generation of American directors - as witness three pictures for which the term 'promising' is simply out of order. But there's no coasting nowadays. You can't just do a few 'Hawks pictures' along the way. There isn't such a mainstream. And so Punch-drunk Love looms up as proof of Anderson's quality as well as the surest warning sign of how hunted he feels. If I had to guess I'd say that the anger Barry can't quite deliver is a way to go. But then the trick is to keep anger comic instead of the trigger for mere violence and regulation slaughter.

We can rejoice in the films, but we have to marvel at the layered subterfuges by which the system today is set to mug its own brightest hopes.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012