Perhaps the auteur theory isn't dead after all. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's new film "Punch-Drunk Love" more than meets any criteria you can think of to define the term. It's about a man who isn't quite a human being in the sense we usually think of. For one thing, he's played by Adam Sandler, who in his own film career has yet to play someone normal. Second, Sandler's character - Barry Egan - sells novelty toilet plungers out of a warehouse in the San Fernando Valley, a business that on its face is impossible. Third, Barry cannot make any kind of normal contact with other people, having been henpecked, humiliated and abused by his seven older sisters ("We always called him Gay Boy," they say to gales of laughter). In fact the bland, affectless exterior he presents is undermined by his occasional rampages, in which he smashes anything at hand, from the French doors at the home of one of his sisters to a restaurant bathroom.
When we meet Barry it's dawn and he's at his place of business working the phone. He hears a crash, and we see along with him that someone has dropped off a harmonium - a little manual organ - at the entrance to the alley where his business is located. As with much else in this film, why is not a question to be asked, just as we did not ask why the rain of frogs in Anderson's "Magnolia." Things happen, and the conventional movie logic of an underlying, believable cause has no place in his films. We are free to accept or reject anything, but it is not helpful to question.
Barry has also been working on something else: he has found that the Healthy Choice food people have made a mistake in a promotion (this is based on an actual episode); they offered free airline miles for the purchase of ten packages of their puddings, but it turns out that the value of the miles - up to a million with the purchase of enough products - can be gotten by buying just $3,000 worth of pudding. So Barry is stockpiling his puddings in the office, even though, as we learn later, he has never been on a plane in his life. Oh, did I mention that Barry wears an electric-blue suit? All the time? Every day? Day or night? As with so much else in this film, Anderson gives us no explanation. Like Jean-Luc Godard's film "Weekend," unlikely things happen, and though they don't make literal sense there is a kind of cosmic certainty that they belong where they are.
In the course of the film, there are two elements that resemble a plot, and they run on more or less parallel tracks. The first is that one of his sisters introduces him to her coworker Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), a soft-spoken, doe-eyed creature who unlike everyone else takes him completely at face value, so much so that at their first dinner date, when his demons come over him and he races to the bathroom to destroy every fixture, for which they are thrown out of the restaurant, she never says a word about it. Nor should we. It happened, that's all.
The other is that one night, while studying the pudding offer, he spots a phone-sex ad and calls it. The woman on the line gets him to give his MasterCard number, his phone number, and even his social security number, and then begins an extortion scheme to get money from him. When he refuses, her boss (Philip Seymour Hoffman) sends 'four blond brothers' to hurt him and get the money. So there are seven sisters and four brothers, for reasons that neither you nor I need question.
Through most of the film Barry's blind rages are unfocused, directed at whatever's handy. But in the course of his strange romance with Lena - in which he joins her in Waikiki, getting himself there by plane, though not through his frequent-flyer miles - he seems to find more focus, so that he can direct that rage against those who deserve it, in this case the four blond brothers.
"Punch-Drunk Love" is one of those rare films that can only be made by a genius, someone so sure of his own talent that he can impose a logic and a structure on events that our brains tell us are impossible. He takes all our conventional critical faculties out of play, and I love him for doing it. Moreover, he gives us a thousand delicious extras; we can look in the corners of his frames to spot little goodies that come and go in an instant, but add another layer to the film. He's shot it all in extreme widescreen; this will be an impossible film to see on television. He's also separated his sequences with beautiful rainbow colors that fill the screen as a contrast to the almost monochromatic blues and greys of his 'normal' scenes.
People will either love or hate this film; and although it is as bizarre as Barry himself, I join my fellow critics in adoring it. We have to honor a filmmaker who gives no quarter. There are too few of those around.