Young people in the first flush of love make all sorts of peculiar declarations, but you’ll rarely hear anything like the one Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) makes to Lena Leonard (Emily Watson) in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (Columbia): “I just wanna smash it, I just wanna smash it. … I just wanna smash it with a sledgehammer you’re so pretty.” Barry has what a shrink might call a problem “integrating” his personality. Most of the time, this boyish owner of a toilet-plunger company has a groggy, ingenuous affect. But his thickness has an aggressive component, too, and you wonder if deep down he doesn’t strive to annoy people. A broad hint to that effect is his compulsion to smash things. On his first date with Lena, Barry copes with feelings of awkwardness by demolishing a fancy restroom. He emerges with his deadpan self intact, only bleeding. Then he earnestly denies he did any damage—and you wonder if he thinks that’s true.
It’s a testament to Anderson’s feelers that he has not only picked up on the passive-aggressive element in Sandler’s personality but has constructed a romantic comedy around it. No, more of a romantic-comic suite. What do you call Punch-Drunk Love? It’s not a musical, because no one sings or dances. But it has the surreal delirium—and the MGM Technicolor hues, airy compositions, and stylized décor—of the great movie musicals. The alternately percussive and swooning music by the brilliant Jon Brion underlines each of its moods in turn—anger, longing, and ecstasy. At its heart the story is boy-meets-girl simple, but the movie is so full of lurches and discordances and flabbergasting non sequiturs that at times it’s like an avant-garde dance-theater piece with injections of Saturday Night Live. I imagine that many will find it arch, and, on a narrative level, as bumptiously withholding as its protagonist. I found it exquisite.
In part I responded out of sheer amazement: I’ve never seen anything like the sequences in which Sandler, in his boxy, sea-blue suit, charges around his warehouse to the rhythm of Brion’s harsh drums. The banging and binging and bumping suggests someone pounding on a door that won’t yield; it could herald the start of an angry tap dance. With seven sisters (played by six real relatives and Mary Lynn Rajskub), Barry is a child-man who has all his life been alternately coddled and bossed around. He’s at once needy and standoffish: He cries plaintively for help as he’s pushing people away.
One morning at sunrise, as he’s sitting in his deserted warehouse quizzing some poor customer-service representative over the phone about how many proof-of-purchase labels he needs to amass the maximum number of frequent flyer miles (one of the film’s absurdist motifs), he hears a car crash; a short time later, a truck leaves a harmonium by the curb. Neither of these occurrences has a literal follow-through (the wreckage disappears, no one claims the harmonium), but Anderson has established his two main tones: cacophony and lyricism. There is an aura of wreckage in Barry’s life. And he gravitates to that harmonium.
The plot has two strands to go with each of those tones. After Barry phones a sex hotline—more to talk, it appears, than to get off—the company, presided over by the indignantly sleazy Dean Trumbell (Philip Seymour Hoffman), attempts to extort money from him, first with threatening phone calls, then a posse of blond brothers. (They’re played by real brothers, and they symmetrically balance Barry’s sisters.) Barry decides to stop running away from injustice: He stands up like a man. But when he and Dean finally face off they’re like two adolescents on a playground hollering at each other to shut up. This is the reductio ad absurdum of a climactic showdown.
The lyrical strand is the flaky but insistent wooing of Barry by Lena, a friend of Barry’s closest sister (Rajskub) with an unfathomable agenda of her own. I’m not sure what made Anderson think of Emily Watson for this movie (apart from the fact that it’s fun to think about her for anything), but she and Sandler have a rapport that’s mysteriously right. She has a pert prettiness—pink skin, shining blue eyes, a mixture of primness and eroticism. He is hulking and vaguely melancholy, with a long, oval face and a spastic lope. Given her willowy raptness and his shapeless blurriness, they shouldn’t fit together. But she focuses him, brings him into her reality. When they regard each other in silhouette, the space between their heads makes a heart. This is the reductio ad absurdum of a romance.
Punch-Drunk Love is a sort of reductio ad absurdum that turns out not so reductive. Anderson has the attitude of a benevolent primal-scream therapist. He has plumbed Sandler’s comic persona and found the anger under the sweetness—and then has kept plumbing and found the sweetness under the anger. No wonder the hero sells plungers. He’s all stopped up when the movie begins, but by the end the clogs have all been pushed through. You’ll want to do a spastic dance of your own in celebration.
I’d heard that Bowling for Columbine (United Artists) was a lefty anti-NRA harangue that preached to the converted. Well, it is the work of Michael Moore, a reflexively bellicose lefty, and it does mock the NRA and its all-American movie-star figurehead, Charlton Heston. The converted will get plenty of uplift: The movie goes on Chomsky-esque tangents—a problem more because they’re tangential than Chomsky-esque. But there is something impressive about this movie. Moore doesn’t always seem to know what he’ll find when he starts posing the big questions. He hasn’t altered all the facts this time out to suit his thesis.
The movie has as its centerpiece two horrific incidents—the massacre of students at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., by two alienated teenagers, and the shooting of a little girl in Flint, Mich. (Moore’s hometown), by a 6-year-old boy. Moore has already concluded that the killers in both instance had too easy access to guns and ammunition, and a portion of the film is devoted to things like confronting Kmart (where the Columbine ammunition was purchased) and marveling over Heston’s decision to hold NRA rallies in both cities in the immediate weeks after the tragedies. (You know the NRA has a public relations problem when Littleton native Trey Parker, the co-creator of SouthPark, says that something you’ve done is in bizarrely bad taste.)
Reflexive Moore-haters will find plenty to sneer at it, especially the suggestion that the Lockheed missiles that passed through Littleton in the dead of night had some sort of malevolent effect on the students of Columbine, or that there was a psychic link between the massacre and an especially intense Kosovo bombing that same morning. The ways in which Moore tries to equate gun ownership and an imperialistic U.S. foreign policy (stand by for a montage of North Vietnam, Chile, El Salvador, etc.) are flatfooted and seem calculated to shore up anti-American sentiment in leftist European countries. (No wonder this movie was such a sensation in Cannes.)
But Moore isn’t ultimately gunning for the NRA or the State Department. What he’s doing is actually braver and more valuable. He’s directly posing the question: Why is the gun-murder rate so much higher in the United States than in so many other (not-at-war) countries? Europeans have a history vastly more violent than ours. Japan has a higher appetite for bloody movies and video games. Canada has as many guns per capita. But the murder rates in those places are low. In the movie’s most hilarious sequence, Moore walks up to a succession of Canadian homes and discovers the doors unlocked: No one is scared.
Moore finds in the United States, on the other hand, a culture of fear that is mined by politicians and exacerbated by a media hungry for sensation. To my mind he doesn’t give enough attention to the vigilante strain in American culture, which teems with scenarios of wives and children murdered and bloody vengeance enacted by angry individuals fed up with the inaction of a liberal government. What he does do brilliantly is beat the cultural conservatives at their own game. Where William Bennett and his ilk will be quick to blame the counterculture or Marilyn Manson (who appears in the film), Moore will suggest that a more likely source of homicidal rage is the culture of achievement at Columbine, whereby anyone who’s a loser now is told they’ll be a loser forever—and die poor. Where the right will target broken homes, drugs, and violent TV shows, Moore will show how the 6-year-old’s mother couldn’t have seen him leave for elementary school with his grandfather’s gun: She was on an 80-mile round-trip journey to the mall where she was employed as part of Michigan’s welfare-to-work program.
This one instance—as Mickey Kaus will be sure to point out—doesn’t invalidate welfare-to-work. But the way that program was administered had more to do with why that little girl died than, say, the godless counterculture did with why Susan Smith drowned her two boys. (Remember Newt Gingrich’s press conference?)
I don’t especially care for the way Moore mocks the denizens of that mall—he has a way of referring to “rich white people” as if he weren’t one of them. The restaurant where the mother worked is owned by Dick Clark, and I’m perfectly prepared to believe he’s a scumbag—but not because he runs away from Moore’s microphone and the 8-by-10 glossy of the dead little girl. Charlton Heston does agree to talk to Moore, but once he theorizes that there’s more violence in the United States because there’s “more mixed ethnicity,” he knows he’s put his foot in it and tries to slink away. There’s something sadistic about the way Moore dogs him with that little girl’s picture—and something appalling about the way he turns to the camera with a look of sorrow: Michael Moore as a suffering Christ. It’s an insult to his own movie, which at its considerable best transcends his thuggish personality.