"Punch-Drunk Love" is a weirdly sweet little love story set in waltz time and filmed as a study in contrast: light and dark, order and chaos, delicate music and ear-bending noise. For writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, whose "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia" were sprawling tales of community, it's a departure, but not a huge one.
Hollow-eyed Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) is another of Anderson's lost souls seeking connection with someone, but he's the focus of the entire movie — and, in the end, his ultimate redemption is a joy to behold.
Barry's world is an odd one: chairs break, people trip, and very small pianos get left on sidewalks for no particular reason. He finds the piano one morning, outside the anonymous warehouse where he runs a small business selling novelty items (like kitschy decorative plungers — "the kind that don't break," he explains, and then breaks one).
That same day, Lena Leonard (Emily Watson) — whose very name seems torn from the classic romantic comedies that give "Love" its heartbeat — marches purposefully into his office as if sent on a mission. Love, or something like it, soon blooms.
The casting of the usually schlubby Sandler at first seems like a bit of a stunt — but Anderson seems to have found something in the actor that nobody's seen before. (He did something similar, though less extreme, with Tom Cruise's smoother-than-oil rage in "Magnolia.")
Sandler's trademark tight, tiny voice is here part of a character: Barry, worn down by his seven sisters' constant badgering, is so penned-in emotionally that he's afraid to move.
His blank apartment — empty white walls, nondescript furniture — contains nothing to convey a personality. And he struggles to keep his pent-up anger inside, not always successfully.
Watson, in contrast, is all lightness — her pale-blue eyes shine like headlamps, focused squarely on Sandler, who seems to melt just a bit under her warmth.
We're not quite sure who this woman is, or where she's from; she's just been dropped in Barry's path like that little piano. But she's clearly the key to his happiness.
"Punch-Drunk Love" contains many of the elements of traditional romantic comedy — Barry and Lena fall in love to the strains of old-fashioned music and navigate through a maze of obstacles to arrive in each other's arms. (Quite literally, in some cases — Sandler is often shown in long hallways or endless archways.)
But Anderson also throws in dark complications, including a sinister phone-sex scam, Barry's strangely surreal sisters, his pudding-purchasing obsession and some very odd pillow talk.
The costuming and lighting — Barry's bright-blue suit; the blinding white light outside his warehouse — feel almost stage-like. And Anderson interrupts the movie on occasion to show a screen full of abstract colors, sometimes organized in tidy lines, sometimes a messy melange.
Not all of this is always effective, but it's easy to excuse a few too many flourishes in the work of a still-young filmmaker trying something new. And where "Punch-Drunk Love" needs to work — when Barry and Lena finally play the little piano together, achieving sweet harmony — it works splendidly.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org.