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Puddin’ head: Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love.

The Lonely Guy
By Laura Leon

Punch-Drunk Love
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Adam Sandler’s movies have always thrown me for a loop. Usually, he plays a goofily loveable sort, but the ensuing comedic situations are, in my opinion, fraught with hostility, making them not so much comedies in the “I laughed so hard my stomach hurt” vein, but movies that ever so gingerly touch on the thin line that separates comedy from tragedy. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, except for the fact that movies like Little Nicky and Big Daddy seemed afraid of embracing that latent hostility, or harnessing it into something more potent.

With Punch-Drunk Love, written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, Sandler is given the chance to play that hostility for all its worth. And yet, his Barry Egan, a socially repressed manufacturer of powder-room accessories, is probably his most endearing character to date. Our greatest comedians are often our best actors (again, it’s that thin-line thing); here, Sandler proves the point with a performance that is achingly realized and surprisingly nuanced.

Barry is the type of guy who hopes business associates call him at home, so desperate is he to have a chance at a conversation. When he calls a phone-sex hotline, he is more intent on having a human connection than he is in whacking off. Simultaneously coddled and bullied by seven older sisters—women who make the Chinese edict on controlling the growth of the female population seem infinitely sensible—Barry seems perpetually on the verge of descending into nothingness, so when Lena (Emily Watson) shows an interest in him, he is both humbly intrigued and terrified. This manifests itself in stilted first-date conversation and the destruction of the restaurant’s men’s room. Deep down, you see, Barry’s got a hair-trigger temper.

Despite the subplot contrivance of the phone-sex lady being employed by a Utah rip-off artist (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who tries to wreak havoc on Barry’s credit line, Punch-Drunk Love is really a character study posing as a love story. One can’t help but wonder what on earth seemingly normal Lena sees in Barry, and the potential manipulative reasoning behind her attraction is always palpable beneath the sweet interplay between the two. I mean, is this chick into bagging a guy she can completely control? The off-kilter nature of the romance translates as well to Barry’s quest for frequent-flier miles (via the purchase of thousands of Healthy Choice single-serving puddings) and his relationship with his employers. This being a Paul Thomas Anderson film, though, the off-kilter is normal. Despite its unevenness, Punch-Drunk Love is capable of astounding, in no small part to Sandler’s truly magnificent dramatic turn.

All at Sea

Swept Away
Directed by Guy Ritchie

Madonna is deluded, and Guy Ritchie is a punk. This is not to say that their first cinematic collaboration is a complete abomination. There have been worse films released this year—though few have been as pointless—as this remake of Lina Wertmüller’s moldy ’70s art-house relic, Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August. The problem is that Madonna thinks she’s a sensitive actress, and hubby-director Ritchie doesn’t have the guts to tell her otherwise. Thus Swept Away, a story of class-consciousness and tragic romance, is as sincere and heartfelt as a Wonderbra.

Amber (Madonna) is rich, spoiled, and miserable. Off on a yachting vacation in the Mediterranean with her husband (Bruce Greenwood) and friends, she seems determined to make everyone as unhappy as she is.

She’s a bitch on wheels—literally. The image of angular Madonna as Amber angrily peddling away on an exercise bike, face contorted in rage, suggests Margaret Hamilton as Miss Gulch in The Wizard of Oz, furiously riding off with Dorothy’s little dog, Toto, in her basket.

Amber vents most of her misplaced anger on Giuseppe (Adriano Giannini), the deckhand assigned to indulge her whims. She mispronounces his nickname “Pepe” as “Pee-pee,” forces him to do menial tasks over and over again, and generally tries to humiliate him. Madonna proves, again, that she has fine comic instincts in these scenes. Of course, before you can say The Admirable Crighton (or Gilligan’s Island), Amber and Giuseppe are marooned on a deserted island. The slave becomes the master, and, after some rough emotional foreplay, the mistress becomes a willing slave.

The faux-Marxist politics left over from the original film are clumsy at best. The dramatic kick of the original film originated in the sexual heat between the lead characters; inanely, Ritchie has jettisoned raw lust for “love.” Madonna cannot do “love” on screen—her performance in the latter part of the film ranges from bland to embarrassing.

This doesn’t mean Madonna is irredeemably terrible, or couldn’t be a movie star—she walked away with Desperately Seeking Susan, her film debut of nearly two decades ago, and her Eva Peron in Evita was very effective in the grand pop-star manner. That’s just two films, however. It is curious that someone so completely assured when it comes to her own celebrity and self-image would have no clue how to translate her persona to the silver screen. Good heavens—didn’t she learn anything from the documentary about her, Truth or Dare? When it comes to movies, Madonna doesn’t want to be Madonna, the queen of pop—a superwoman able to continually reinvent herself, transgress sexual boundaries and make careerism seem like art. Madonna wants to be Meryl Streep. Until she lets go of this fixation, her films will continue to suck.

—Shawn Stone

The French Disconnection

The Truth About Charlie
Directed by Jonathan Demme

Adapted from Peter Stone’s 1963 script for Charade, Jonathan Demme’s grindingly contemporary remake, The Truth About Charlie, has about as much in common with that charming romantic thriller as former thug Mark Wahlberg has with Cary Grant—his predecessor as the mysterious suitor who helps a clueless widow (Thandie Newton in the Audrey Hepburn role) discover the truth about her murdered husband, Charles (Stephen Dillane), an international art dealer.

Naive Regina (Newton) meets Joshua Peters (Wahlberg) in Martinique; returning to Paris, she discovers that her husband has been whacked and their palatial apartment ransacked, and that she’s suspected by Commandant Dominique (Christine Boisson), who shoots her smoldering looks in between inanely accusatory questions. The investigator also sets her smoldering eyes on Joshua, who makes “fraught with meaning” eye contact with the trio of goons who are trailing Regina. Regina blithely accepts Joshua’s ambivalent attentions, seemingly because she doesn’t have anything better to do. When not coming on to each other, everyone just runs around in airports, train stations and traffic-clogged back alleys, looking for the $6 million rumored to be stashed away by the shady Charles. Pressuring Regina to stay in the game is a benevolent American military attaché (Tim Robbins). But of course, no one is whom they say they are.

It’s all pretty ridiculous and tiresome, especially the “erotic frissons” between all the players (expressed with too-close-for-comfort close-ups). Demme has stated that Charlie is his homage to the French New Wave, and sure enough, New Wave muse Anna Karina makes a cameo as a cabaret singer, with Gallic icon Charles Aznavour popping up as a one-man Greek chorus. But though it’s shot in an exaggeratedly Breathless style, with the camera whirling around the characters like an annoying dragonfly, the film owes more to Tom Twyker (Run Lola Run) and other video-game-influenced directors than it does to the French cinematic liberation of the 1960s. There’s a girlie goon named Lola (Lisa Gay Hamilton), who has the hots for Regina; distracting fast-motion and slow-motion snippets; and flashbacks to Sarajevo, shot on video stock to laughably cheesy effect.

Even more tedious is Demme’s counterintuitive casting. Newton shines in a role that any actress with wide eyes, long legs and an adorable shriek could play, but Wahlberg barely registers. With his animal magnetism muffled by some really dreadful wardrobe choices (tweed coat and beret among them), and utterly lacking the charismatic self-assurance required to lure Regina into a possibly dangerous liaison, Joshua comes off as a bored hanger-on. Robbins’ avuncular attaché (played in the original by Walter Matthau) is nearly as bland, and Ted Levine, indelibly creepy as Buffalo Bill the serial killer in Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, has the thankless job of going over the top as an appallingly gratuitous weirdo.

It’s likely that Demme was aiming for the same edgy shifts in comedic tone that made his early indie film Something Wild a cult favorite, but here, jumping from queasy violence to pseudo-hipster flippancy only weakens what little forward motion the plot contains. Revelations about the characters follow a pointlessly circular logic, and despite all the frenzied pacing and foot racing through Paris, the film goes nowhere.

—Ann Morrow

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