To say that Adam Sandler has been poorly received by critics over the years would be something of an understatement. Jack and Jill currently holds the record for the most Razzie awards won in a single night, sweeping every award going in 2012, including both Worst Actor and Worst Actress going to Sandler. The Worst Idea of All Time is a podcast that began with the dumb idea to watch Grown Ups 2 every week for a whole year, but slowly became a study of the limits of human tolerance and sanity as the two hosts loosened their grip on reality week by week. These examples are just the tip of the iceberg of the critical drubbing Sandler has received over the years, and rightly so; his films are, almost without exception, terrible.
Almost. No actor is ever truly beyond redemption, at least not whilst they’re still working; there’s always the possibility of a great turnaround. Punch-Drunk Love is the lone exception that soars far, far above the lake of effluvium that holds the rest of Sandler’s films (Reign Over Me from 2007 also skims above the surface of the shitty lake, but is definitely held aloft with much assistance from Don Cheadle). The film also happens to be directed by one of the most critically acclaimed filmmakers of the past two decades, Paul Thomas Anderson. Really it shouldn’t be surprising that Sandler shines in this film; there are numerous examples of great directors bringing great performances out of hit-and-miss or just plain bad actors. Matthew McConaughey has had his McConaissance, Marlon Wayans is brilliant in Requiem for a Dream, and of course there’s the perpetually unpredictable Nic Cage, truly dreadful in so much, but a deserving Oscar winner for Leaving Las Vegas, excellent under Spike Jonze in Adaptation, wonderfully weird with Werner Herzog in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and joyous in Kick-Ass. And last but not least, his finest hour, Con-Air.
Under Anderson, Sandler truly does pull out an incredible performance as the socially disastrous Barry Egan. Sandler captures Barry’s bumbling shyness brilliantly as a new relationship finds its feet, while simultaneously struggling to keep his rage in check. His disruptive anger is just visible below the surface before his defences slip and he sporadically explodes with fury. Sandler’s performance is nuanced, touching, and most surprisingly of all (considering most of his output is the antithesis of humour), funny.
Not only does he do himself proud with a career-best performance, Sandler easily keeps pace with some of the most critically praised actors of their time. His blossoming relationship with Lena Leonard (played by the ever-excellent Emily Watson) is at the heart of the film and the two make an adorably awkward pair. His uncertainty over her motivations and her tender reassurances that she’s not playing a joke on him are sweet and sincere, a genuine romance in a romantic comedy, so far-removed from the contrived and plastic stories that so often fall under that banner.
The potential spanner in the works of this new romance, however, is the fact Barry is being blackmailed by a phone sex line operated by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman, widely regarded as one of the finest actors of his generation, genuinely has his acting chops tested by Adam Fucking Sandler. We’ve written previously about the confrontation between the two men in the film, and whilst Hoffman sizzles as always during his brief screentime, Sandler is an adequate match for the master.
A deliberately brief film (Anderson set out to make something no longer than 90 minutes after the epic run-times of Boogie Nights and Magnolia), it’s the definition of knowing when to leave the party, not overstaying its welcome by a minute. It’s a rare film that achieves exactly what it sets out to do, and with style. A quirky romcom in the best possible way, it’s a genuinely endearing love story with a slightly shady underbelly that proves arguably better than any other example that with great direction, even the most derided actors are capable of truly great performances.
The new Criterion Collection release features a lush 4K transfer and surround sound so you can be completely enveloped in Jon Brion’s wonderfully oddball score and the fantastic use of Harry Nilsson’s ‘He Needs Me’ from the Popeye soundtrack, as sung by Shelley Duvall. It also features a new interview with Brion and behind-the-scenes footage of him recording the soundtrack. Other features, among many other odds and ends, include: a 12-minute short directed by Anderson, Blossoms and Blood, that also stars Sandler and Watson; a mock Mattress Man commercial starring a guitar-playing Philip Seymour Hoffman on a roof; and an interview with one of the inspirations for the film, David Phillips, the ‘air miles pudding guy’. Being part of the Criterion Collection it’s also been lavished with gorgeous new cover artwork in keeping with their famously aesthetic-focused style. If you’ve previously been put off by Punch-Drunk Love because of Adam Sandler in the lead role, take the plunge with this reissue; you’ll be so glad to have been proved wrong about him. Even if it’s just the once, it’s a magnificent once.
The Criterion Collection Blu-Ray of Punch-Drunk Love is available now. Thanks to the Criterion Collection, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment and Emfoundation for providing a copy.