When people kept saying earlier this year that "Uncut Gems" was Adam Sandler's first truly dramatic role, I referred them back to Paul Thomas Anderson's dark and fascinating 2002 film, PUNCH DRUNK LOVE.
Sandler is all drama and zero laughs as the manager of an import company that seems to sell crap of every variety to 99 Cent Only stores across the LA basin.
Anderson loves to film in California and his films cover every type of CA landscape. This time he hones in on the sprawling industrial complexes and warehouses of LA's suburbs, shooting nearly every scene in harsh industrial lighting that renders everything the same stark, bleak pale blue.
Everything except the electric blue suit that Barry Egan seems to wear to work everyday.
Anderson doesn't structure a traditional story, showing little desire to create a driving narrative. Instead, we feel like voyeur to Barry's life.
He buys product that no one seems to want. He obsesses over an old "piano" (That's not a piano!!") that he finds in the street.
He explodes into fits of rage at his seven sisters who constantly pressure him at work, including Elizabeth (Mary Lynn Rajskub from "24") who spends most of her time tearing him down in a dazzling assault of mental instability.
Elizabeth seems determined to set him up with a co-worker Lena, well played by Emily Watson (Gosford Park, Red Dragon). Lena is the only stable character in the entire film and grounds not only us as the viewer, but Sandler's performance as Barry.
Anderson is just as fascinated with depicting Barry's locked-on quest for hoarding frequent flyer miles by buying Healthy Choice pudding as he is showing Barry and Lena's budding relationship.
In a Tarantino-like subplot, Barry calls an adult sex line one night and seems to bond with the woman on the other end. When she calls back the next day, Barry is pulled into a violent, crazy web not unlike his experience with those jewelry mobsters in 'Gems" many years later.
Sandler is very good in the role, smashing dark and troubled into a explosive mix. There are moments when you can almost feel his pain before he vomits up the truth he's been holding back in a rapid fire spill of guilt and confession.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is excellent as the furniture salesman by day/sex line mobster by night whose hit squad feels borrowed from a Coen Brothers movie in all the right ways. He's hilarious and terrifying.
Luis Guzman (Boogie Nights) is terrific as Barry's warehouse manager and friend who seems as baffled as we are at most of the plot.
This was Anderson's follow up to his brilliant "Magnolia" which for me, stands alongside "There Will Be Blood" and "The Phantom Thread" as his best works. This film is too slight to be compared to those sprawling character studies, but its lean, mean and so odd in many good ways.
Anderson called it "my Adam Sandler arthouse film" and there's probably no better way to describe it.
As Lena and Barry fall in love, Anderson plays Shelley Duvall singing Harry Nillson's "He Needs Me" from the Robert Altman musical "Popeye" over the long scene. Duvall crooning a wobbly love song as Olive Oil is a very strange choice, but like the rest of Anderson's choices here, it works. It's an oddly perfect fit.
PUNCH DRUNK LOVE is angry, methodical and as maddening as Jon Brion's offbeat score. If you're looking for a traditional romance, try another aisle. If you're shopping for some unusual people that might not be all that nice once you get to know them, you're arrived in the right spot. Lesser PT Anderson is still better than most and proves challenging. I'll give it an appreciative B.