Love Is Strange

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Review of The Good Girl by Emma Taylor.

Ever since I had this totally hot — and bizarrely romantic — dream about Jim Carrey a few years back, before directors started taking him more seriously, I’ve been saddled with a Pavlovian response to all physical comedians. Don’t laugh: It’s not easy trying to get your kicks from The Cable Guy and Little Nicky. So I was beside myself when I heard that Paul Thomas Anderson (of Boogie Nights and Magnolia fame) was making a romantic comedy of sorts starring Adam Sandler and Emily Watson (Breaking the Waves, Angela’s Ashes). In the wrong hands, this could have been disastrous — we’re talking Madonna in Swept Away disastrous, or Keanu Reeves in anything except Bill and Ted disastrous. Fortunately, Anderson is a professional driver working on a closed course, as they like to say in the car ads biz. In this case, his closed course is the familiar territory of San Fernando Valley, with the familiar faces of Anderson regulars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Luis Guzman in the background.

Sandler plays Barry Egan, a bipolar small business owner who sells novelty bathroom plungers out of a warehouse in the San Fernando Valley (though he’s “looking to diversify”). The movie opens with Barry on the phone, wearing an electric-blue suit in an electric-blue room, quizzing a customer-service rep about a special offer on air miles being offered by Healthy Choice products.

It doesn’t take long for things to get weirder. Prompted by a strange tinkling noise, Barry walks to the end of his driveway, where he witnesses a car flip over three times. Immediately thereafter, a red taxi pulls up to the curb, ejects a harmonium onto the sidewalk and screeches away. (A harmonium is like a miniature organ cross-bred with an accordion — it’s okay, no one in the movie knows what to call it either.) Then all is silent but for the approaching footsteps of a woman in heels. This is Lena Leonard (Watson) and she is here to fall in love with Barry. Her approach to this is as purposeful as her walk, and she never wavers once, despite sharing Barry’s inability to maintain eye contact and conduct “normal” human conversation. It’s not easy being Sandler’s on-screen lady friend — just think what it didn’t do for the careers of Winona Ryder, Fairuza Balk and Joey Lauren Adams — but when Watson smiles quizzically at Sandler and tells him, “There’s a piano on the sidewalk,” you almost expect him to respond, “Of all the wholesale novelty- bathroom-item warehouses in all the world, she had to walk into mine.” Her spontaneous crush is as nonsensical as the arrival of the harmonium, and yet Watson’s lovestruck Lena is completely believable. Seeing Barry through her eyes is like seeing John Travolta through Tarantino’s lens — all of a sudden you wonder how come no one ever took Sandler seriously before.

Anderson experiments with sound like a master DJ — Lena’s footsteps don’t fade when she walks away from Barry the first time; a factory intercom announcing his incoming calls is startling each time it sounds. It’s a jarring experience (and one that would probably have been more effective were New York movie-goers more polite in their popcorn-eating habits). Anderson’s obvious intent is to delve inside Barry’s head, and it’s a lovely surprise to find more than whoopie cushions and doodie jokes in there.
YetPunch-Drunk Love manages to maintain most of the conventions of a romantic comedy: Lena and Barry’s first date is an endearingly bumbling experience, their first kiss a triumph of passion over social awkwardness. She flies off to Hawaii and he follows on a whim. The conventional Obstacle to Romance materializes in the shape of a vengeful phone-sex operator whom Barry once called in a fit of loneliness. But every convention is magnified almost to the point of farce: Barry’s bipolarity — his almost-tragic flaw — causes him to destroy a restaurant bathroom and a set of sliding glass doors. The requisite family-dinner scene shows Barry with his seven nagging sisters (six of whom are played by non-professionals and are actually related) and various brothers-in-law, all of whom call him “gay boy.” The hero-admits-his-weakness moment is so literal that it should be funny, but so raw that it’s not: Barry asks his brother-in-law, “Can you help me? You’re a doctor. I don’t like myself sometimes.” His brother-in-law responds that he’s only a dentist, but Barry persists: “I cry a lot for no reason.”

This film is even more fantastical and even less like real-life dating than your average Hollywood romance, and that’s why it works. Anderson could easily have tried to make the dialogue seem “real” (or worse, ironic), like so many failed indie flicks. But as reality TV has taught, it takes hundreds of hours of “real” dialogue to make even half an hour of compelling footage. Watching a “real” conversation on screen makes you squirm with second-hand embarrassment, and to this film’s credit, it never does that. I went into this movie expecting it to be tainted with a Mike Leigh–like sense of impending doom — i.e. “It’s P.T. Anderson, so I can’t assume a happy ending.” But Punch-Drunk Love is as refreshingly doom-free as Sweet Home Alabama. The difference: in Sweet Home Alabama, a “happy ever after” on the horizon simply means that you’re not unduly stressed by any obstacles to romance. But in Punch-Drunk Love, the sense of an impending “happy ever after” frees you to appreciate P.T. Anderson’s attention to detail. The bumbling and klutziness are as scripted as Sandra Bullock’s; each scene is staged almost like a musical. But when Barry breaks out into a spontaneous “pudding tap dance” in the supermarket, it just feels right.

What ultimately makes this film work is what it doesn’t show, what it doesn’t tell, what it’s almost like, and what it’s not. Though the film’s framework is light Hollywood romance, its characters live as if in a vacuum. During a romantic candlelight dinner in Hawaii, Barry looks out to the beach and says, “It really looks like Hawaii here.” Like many of the film’s most poignant scenes, it gets a laugh for being a typically man-child Sandler moment, but it could also be a sage summary of the narrative. Just as Barry can barely believe that he’s actually on a tropical beach with a Britbabe, so you might find it hard to believe that Anderson is telling a sweet love story. But it sure looks like one.  

Punch-Drunk Love opens October 11 in New York, Los Angeles and Toronto and October 18 nationwide.

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Emma Taylor Contributing editor Emma Taylor is one half of “Em & Lo,” and has been a near-expert at Nerve for the past five years. Together with her better half, Lo, she has written Nerve’s two original books, “The Big Bang” (July ’03) and “Nerve’s Guide to Sex Etiquette” (February ’04). She writes for Men’s Journal, Glamour, The Guardian (U.K.) and EmandLo.com. She can currently be heard starring on Nerve’s voicemail system.