Punch-Drunk Love
Alfred Hitchcock told the story of a screenwriter who complained he was never able to remember his best ideas since they came in his sleep. One evening, the writer put a notebook by his bed so he could write down his dreams in the middle of the night.

The next morning, after another sensational, dream-filled slumber, the screenwriter looked at the words he’d written: “Boy meets girl.”

The story illustrated what Hitchcock saw as an irreducible element of successful storytelling. It also helps pare away the hype surrounding P.T. Anderson’s absurdly over-praised film Punch-Drunk Love.

Why have a number of eminent critics swooned over this film? The latest offering from the man who rained frogs from the heavens in Magnolia and hung a plus-size penis on Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights is a fleeting, sweet-smelling non-entity, barely even there at 89 minutes. Almost completely devoid of plot, incident or character development, it’s boy meets girl, boy resists girl, boy accepts girl. And that is all.

As Hitchcock’s joke makes clear, no older or more durable plot device exists. But a timeless hook like “boy meets girl” normally functions to anchor a film that explores other agendas. Movies as radically different as My Darling Clementine, Groundhog Day, The Mother and the Whore, and Psycho all have a “boy meets girl” spine, even if the romance isn’t the most important part of the film. P.T. Anderson’s film has virtually nothing else going on to justify its existence.

Except Adam Sandler, that is. Sandler, an actor of extremely modest resources, has nonetheless become wildly successful by hewing to a carefully crafted screen persona: ordinary white guys who wear flannel and reversed baseball caps and love sports and rock ‘n’ roll. En route to getting the girl at the end, he is repeatedly humiliated to the point that he explodes and beats the shit out of his tormentors.

His iconography is fixed enough that his next big film is simply called Anger Management. Sandler manages his anger very well: He’s being paid $25 million for that one.

Just as Tarantino employed Travolta in Pulp Fiction, Anderson is interested in Sandler for his iconographic status. True to form, as meek businessman Barry Egan, Sandler is a coiled-up, seething Willy Loman who erupts with fury on windows and bathrooms. This much of Sandler’s performance works pretty well. Less successful are several lame pratfalls Anderson half-heartedly throws in.

The film opens with Sandler’s Egan in the large Los Angeles warehouse where he wholesales specialty toilet plungers. An obsessive coupon-clipper, he’s noticed a deal where consumers receive frequent flyer miles for every Healthy Choice purchase. For only a few thousand dollars worth of chocolate pudding, he can accrue a million frequent flyer miles. There’s no real reason for this development (aside from being a true story that caught Anderson’s eye): we later learn that Barry has never flown on a plane, and doesn’t want to. Now that’s ironic.

Barry’s day kicks off with three portentous incidents. Two of them are predictably inexplicable, and therefore de rigeur for an Anderson film. After a sudden shock introduces an ominous note of danger, a harmonium is deposited on the sidewalk outside Barry’s warehouse. (Why a harmonium? Why not, seems Anderson’s answer.)

Then comes the entrance of the Girl, named Lena. For some unfathomable reason, she falls instantly in love with Barry. As played by Emily Watson, Lena’s the same sweetly innocent and incorruptible creature Watson played in Breaking the Waves. In contrast to the earthbound Barry, Lena travels a lot. She’s also friendly with one of Barry’s six sisters. Mary Lynn Rajskub plays the lead sister, and the other five are played by five actual sisters. (Why five sisters? Why not?)

The film’s best scene also introduces its only complication. One lonely evening Barry calls a phone sex line. Since he’s really only interested in talking, the woman listens impatiently before goading him into the act. Since phone sex lines earn their money by the minute, this doesn’t make much sense. Barry’s night of indiscretion soon leads to blackmail, as the phone sex company–a gang, really–threatens to expose him if he doesn’t cough up more money. This also makes little sense; phone sex operators make enough money legally without dispatching goons to shake people down.

It’s not clear what the point of this subplot is, except to provide the browbeaten Barry some butts to kick. Philip Seymour Hoffman, veteran of all four of Anderson’s films, plays the gang’s ringleader with one-dimensional gusto, while the four goons are brothers, played by four actual brothers. (Why four brothers? Why not?)

Naturally, the thugs complicate things with Lena. But nothing in this film is taken very seriously, and there’s never any doubt of her devotion to Barry. Romantic whimsy is what this film is selling–along with Adam Sandler in his first semi-serious, furrowed-brow role.

Anderson has said he wanted to make a film like those of French physical comedian Jacques Tati (Jour de Fete, Mr. Hulot’s Holiday). He’s even ventured the notion that Sandler is a modern equivalent of Tati himself. As if.

Tati actually put visual invention on the screen, rather than just talking about it in interviews. In contrast to Anderson’s thin, belabored product, Tati’s films have an endless supply of delightful sight gags and a broad tapestry of characters. They also have even less plot than Punch-Drunk Love.

Actually, Sandler’s fine in this film, but he doesn’t seem as relaxed as he was in Happy Gilmore, a work more entertaining than this self-referential and self-conscious film. Punch-Drunk Love does succeed in its approximation of Tati’s use of musical pacing and editing, and Anderson also manages to create a luminous visual environment, much as Tati did in his French countryside settings. Elsewhere, scenes are demarcated by abstracted, sunset-colored paintings, and a mixture of Jon Brion’s percussive original compositions with a lush Harry Nilsson number make a rather nice score.Still, today’s self-referential cinema (which will forever be linked to Tarantino) has introduced the notion that movies should be judged on the hipness of their influences rather than their own intrinsic quality. Punch-Drunk Love isn’t a bad film, but it shouldn’t be mistaken for an urgent or important one, either. That critics are going nuts for it speaks to our hunger for more idiosyncratic and risky films from Hollywood. Unfortunately, Punch-Drunk Love is only a pastiche, a weakly executed homage to a bygone cinematic era that no one seems to believe in anymore.

–David Fellerath

Bloody Sunday
Though Bloody Sunday doesn’t have a hip director or Adam Sandler going for it, Paul Greenglass’ Irish Troubles docudrama has also generated a chorus of critical acclaim. Bloody Sunday is indeed a thrilling achievement, by turns gripping, appalling and infuriating, re-enacting the events of Sunday, Jan. 30, 1972 in the Northern Ireland city of Derry (known to Brits and Irish Protestants as Londonderry). The carnage is probably best known to Americans as the subject of a U2 song, but Greengrass brings the events to life for a new generation.

We see calamity unfolding from the opening credits, with the leader of a Catholic civil rights movement announcing an upcoming march, and the leader of the British occupation blustering about the need for public order. The film that follows is an anatomy of an outrage, one that galvanized support for the Irish Republican Army and provided a decades-long rallying cry for Irish Catholics. As two intractable forces stare each other down, we see how wild card elements turn a tense, controlled standoff into a cataclysm. In this case, unruly youth are a big problem: both the Irish kids throwing rocks, and the kids enforcing the Crown’s rule with very itchy trigger fingers. Through poor communication, events quickly spiral out of control.

The most remarkable thing about Bloody Sunday is its verité style, a mode of filmmaking that went out of fashion 30 years ago. In Greengrass’s choice of the grainy, high speed film stock the pre-digital documentarians favored, the handheld camerawork and seemingly casual setups, the film looks and feels “real,” in the way that Costa-Gavras’ Z, or Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers did. The documentary look makes the information seem trustworthy, but at present, British historians are raising alarms about alleged fabrications.

As impressive as it is, there’s something curiously irrelevant about the neo-realism of Bloody Sunday. Z and Algiers were propaganda films designed to focus the world on contemporary imperialist and Cold War outrages. The 1972 debacle in Derry is firmly inscribed in the history books. Instead of simply reliving the awful day, maybe some explicit revisionism would have been worth a try. Had Greenglass taken a cue from Oliver Stone, using documentary-style methods to advance novel arguments, he might have made an outrageous film, rather than a mere reenactment of an outrage.

–David Fellerath

Eight Women
François Ozon’s delightful genre-bending Eight Women practically insists that reviewers play the parlor game of fanciful combination. It’s Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, as interpreted by Jacques Brel. It’s Jacques Demy’s Umbrellas of Cherbourg meets Blake Edwards’ Murder By Death.

Or, as a local theater owner commented, it’s Agatha Christie on crack.

A group of eight suspicious women strut and shimmy around a French country house in a snowstorm. Each one wants to solve the murder of Marcel, the group’s patriarch and meal ticket, without further implicating herself. Guilt obscures class lines among these relatives, servants and lovers: No one’s manicured hands are clean, and there’s little distinction between upstairs and downstairs by the time these vipers get through with one another.

The phenomenal cast–and how it functions as an ensemble–is one reason to see this film. Catherine Deneuve has yet to meet a lens that doesn’t love her: Here she’s Gaby, the dead man’s wife. Isabelle Huppert, Emanuelle Béart, and the spicily magnetic Fanny Ardant play Gaby’s sister, servant, and sister-in-law. None is tougher than Mamy (Danielle Darrieux), the half-soused matriarch. The actors soak up Eight Women’s 1950s setting and sink into its somewhat precious visual style, managing to sell this odd juxtaposition of mystery and musical, of film noir and Bollywood.

While the strong cast makes this an intriguing film, the musical numbers make it irresistible. Captivating song and dance numbers, performed by the actors themselves, interrupt the murder mystery’s stylized melodramatics and its interminable unfolding of secrets. Several surprisingly haunting songs express the existential loneliness of these impeccably coiffed women. The croaky hoarseness of Firmine Richard’s performance as Chanel is reminiscent of Edith Piaf. Ardant’s Gilda-like turn also stands out.

Eight Women may not appeal to a wide audience. Certainly it can be faulted for presenting women as duplicitous–a prominent trait among these jewel-toned harpies–and hen-pecked Marcel as apparently virtuous. But things are not always as they seem, and it hardly matters when the focus is on the women’s interrelationships. Eight Women’s hilarious rendition of murder, mayhem, and sexual tension among the pampered classes and their servants is an adventure unlike anything on screen this year.

–Maria Pramaggiore