by Ben Kenigsberg Paul Thomas Anderson takes a lot of abuse from critics who still draw a distinction between high culture and low, but he may have a better instinctive grasp of filmmaking ...

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by Ben Kenigsberg

Paul Thomas Anderson takes a lot of abuse from critics who still draw a distinction between high culture and low, but he may have a better instinctive grasp of filmmaking technique than any director alive. Anderson has a knack for turning the most mundane moments in his movies into caffeine rushes. Even when his ideas aren't fully formed, he's peerless in ambition, in daring, and above all, in understanding of the way viewers will react to his fluid camerawork and evocative soundtracks. He has near-Hitchcockian skill for teasing his audience.

His new film,

Punch-Drunk Love

, has been widely discussed as a defense of Adam Sandler's screen persona. In the movie, Sandler's character triumphs over adversity by releasing his bottled-up anger in the same way that the real-life Sandler gets laughs by unleashing his inner child. As you watch the film, you realize how much of Sandler's comedy is based on pain. The movie makes you question what you laugh at and why.

Yet it seems pointless to praise the film for deconstructing Sandler's sense of humor. The critique seems to have been the last thing on the director's mind. Anderson was never much of an intellectual, and after two viewings of

Punch-Drunk Love

, aside from a funny allusion to

The Night of the Hunter

, I can't find any sort of semiotics in the film. As far as I can tell, the movie is meant to be taken at face value.

As was the case with the brilliant


-- in which simplistic parallel stories of betrayal and atonement unfolded with an astonishing degree of tension -- Anderson has based his screenplay on a few grand themes (love! revenge! redemption!) and seems to have filmed them in whatever way came to mind.

Punch-Drunk Love

is his most surreal, free-associative film yet. On a literal level, it only amounts to a shaggy dog story, but anyone who quibbles with the plot is missing the point.

Anderson's filmmaking is so spellbinding that the disparate elements seem to fit.

Punch-Drunk Love

is an explosion of color, rhythm, and camera movement. The film makes you dizzy with its craft and leaves you in a kind of trance. It may sound like directorial masturbation, but Anderson sustains the dreamlike mood so well that you feel comfortable with his experimentation.

Punch-Drunk Love

is a phantasmagoria of pure, simple, genuine emotion. The film is not primarily a comedy but an escapist romance in the tradition of the Astaire-Rogers musicals, which Anderson has cited as inspirations. The leads meet, triumph over a conflict that seems less significant in retrospect than it did while you were watching the movie, and fall in love. For no logical reason, you leave the theater winded, bewildered, and overjoyed.

Sandler plays Barry Egan, a shy toilet-plunger salesman marginalized from an early age by his seven insensitive sisters. Barry's sole ambition in life is to take advantage of a loophole he's found in an advertising promotion: by buying $3,000 worth of pudding, he can earn more than a million frequent flyer miles.

His priorities change, though, when one sister introduces him to Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), who believes there's more to Barry than meets the eye. He's hesitant at first, but her insistent advances help him find a previously untapped spring of nerve. He even works up the courage to deal with a debt he owes to a sleazy phone sex operator (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who simultaneously serves as the movie's villain and as its red herring.

Lena and Barry are archetypes, not characters -- but that, surprisingly, is not a problem. There's something quaintly romantic about the movie's notion of chemistry. Lena dresses in red, Barry in blue. She is played by Emily Watson, he by Adam Sandler. And as is always the case in movieland, opposites attract.

Anderson's regular cinematographer, Robert Elswit often leaves in lens flares -- the glare effect that you sometimes see when the camera is pointed directly at a source of light -- so that the film is literally bathed in sun. The camera often seems to act as a prism: watching the film is like looking into a hallucinatory alternate reality. Periodically, Anderson inserts montages of color-field digital artwork by New York artist Jeremy Blake, which suggest a purified equivalent of the cinematic abstraction that Anderson is aiming for.

The endlessly complicated music by Jon Brion includes percussive riffs, an elegiac oboe tune, and an old-fashioned movie score -- all of which interact with the imagery in strange and enticing ways. As an anthem of sorts, Anderson has co-opted "He Needs Me," an improbably charming ditty that Shelley Duvall sang in Robert Altman's ill-fated movie version of



I'm still at a loss to explain exactly what

Punch-Drunk Love

is. A muddle of half-complete ideas? A bold narrative experiment? A successful attempt to show that Adam Sandler can act? The most vivid, moving cinematic fantasy and love story that movie theaters will see this year? All of the above? All that can be said with certainty is that Anderson's intentions are innocent. He closes the film with a shot of an object whose symbolic significance even he could grasp: a harmonium.