Monday, February 10, 2003

I saw Punch Drunk Love . Strange, and sweet and weird, with occasional moments of rage. Writer-Director Paul Thomas Anderson's previous film was the long, self-indulgent, occasionally pompous, and in parts brilliant Magnolia , with its completely misunderstood rain of frogs at the end. Here, he has set about making a romantic comedy starring Adam Sandler and Emily Watson. It has been commented on in various places that Anderson saw the underlying self-pity and rage in Sandler's previous characters, and basically wrote a movie around it. It is hard to me to comment on this, as I have seen few of his other movies. (Only "The Wedding Singer" comes to mind, and I am not sure that is that typical). Whatever he saw, however, he used it as an excuse to make what is for him a relatively short, light piece. And this is really what he needed to do.

As for Watson, she is playing almost a dream figure in this film, one who appears almost out of nowhere, looks at Sandler's character, points and says "You". Watson is most famous for playing somewhat extreme characters: her two most famous roles are somewhat overwrought characters (to put it mildly) in Breaking the Waves and Hilary and Jackie , but in this film she is playing the milder of the two lead roles, although one occasionally gets the impression that she none the less isn't entirely sane.

Which is good, because Emily Watson is wonderful as a romantic lead. There is something amazingly expressive about her eyes and her face: everything that is going through her mind appears on it. It's somehow a mixture of naivity and mischievousness. And there is something deeply appealing about it. Watson is something of a film geek dream figure for this reason. And given that, Anderson has done a relatively straightforward thing, which is to cast her as a geek dream figure. And she is consequently great. However, it's a rather more passive role than many she has played in the past, which is probably why the performance hasn't quite got the attention it deserves.

And Philip Seymour Hoffman is hilarious in a small part as a Utah based furniture sales / phone sex businessman, although he probably has less than five minutes screen time in total. (Hoffman is often hilarious, though. He and Watson come top my list of "Actors most deserving of an oscar for something who don't presently have one. He also is best known for playing creepy characters, but is also sensational in non-creepy roles. David Mamet was smart enough to case him as a sympathetic lead (in State and Main . Cameron Crowe got an amazing performance out of him as Lester Bangs in Almost Famous . He was sensational as an arrogant WASP aristocrat type in Anthony Mighella's The Talented Mr Ripley, too).

Anderson lights and films the San Fernando Valley like it is heaven. The director's emotional connection to the location has come out in his previous films. (The Valley is the home base of the porn industry, and I think the emotional connection to the place was necessary for Boogie Nights , almost a love letter to the porn industry, to work). Here thogh, the emotional connection comes through the lighting as much as anything. A little of the film is set in Hawaii, which is similarly softly lit, but somehow there is no real reflection of place in that.

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