Sandler, Watson make beautiful music in 'Punch-Drunk Love'

"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

Movie review

"Punch-Drunk Love," with Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Luis Guzmn, Mary Lynn Rajskub. Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. 97 minutes. Rated R for strong language including a scene of sexual dialogue. Pacific Place, Guild 45th.