Saturday, September 15, 2012

An Argument for Adam Sandler in 'Punch-Drunk Love'

The second piece that is part of 'September 2012: Paul Thomas Anderson Appreciation Month'. This will focus on Punch Drunk Love. #PTAAM

After much tormenting deliberation, I've come up with the five greatest screen performances that I've ever seen. And it goes like this...

Robert DeNiro, Taxi Driver
Faye Dunaway, Network
Francer McDormand, Fargo
Al Pacino, Dog Day Afternoon
Adam Sandler, Punch-Drunk Love

Sandler - Odd Man Out?

Yes, that is my list. I do not place Sandler in with the likes of Pacino and Dunaway out of some over-educated, zany contrarian need to make my list stand out amongst all of the others. This is how I really feel. This is my real opinion. And to be honest, I've kinda felt this way about Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love from the first time I'd seen it. For me, it's the kind of visceral, completely unhinged performance that would probably never come from someone who actually knows a whole lot about the craft of acting. I can't really see Jeremy Irons or Anthony Hopkins stripping down to such the vulnerable level that Sandler does in this movie, mostly because I think Sandler's novice stature in the acting community allowed him to follow P.T. Anderson to the end of the world. He put all his trust in Anderson's work, without even an ounce of thought of his own craft. Granted, it's not hard to do so when you're previous starring role was Little Nicky.

So, how do I make this argument? Well, I do feel that a lot of the people who would object to Sandler's placement on my list, probably haven't seen the movie. After all, it is probably Anderson's least-watched film. After that, what you are left with is the rest of Sandler's filmography - which is, while I think inherently underrated (considering the presence of what I find to be hilarious movies in The Wedding Singer and Happy Gilmore), still includes the likes of Click and Jack and Jill. There are other false starts at attempts for serious films. Reign Over Me was earnest enough but felt a little too much out of his league, and the film itself became just too melodramatic by its second half. Apatow's Funny People was prepped to be his great note about stand-up comedy with Adam Sandler tackling one of his best roles. But the film itself was overwrought and uneven, bloated in its 146 minutes. And most importantly, considering this piece, it was far too unkind to Sandler's character, George Simmons, leaving little room to feel anything but antipathy for his performance.

So, despite a long list of box office success, there certainly isn't a whole ton of acting achievements. I mean, after all, Sandler is a comedian first, and probably does not dream about convincing audiences of Bogart-ian abilities on the screen. This alone, some may say, is a reason why Sandler's performance in Punch-Drunk Love shouldn't be considered in my top 5. I mean, why would you choose a performance from someone who doesn't seem to care? First of all, caring is relative. We always say that we can tell how much someone cares by the way they conduct an interview or by the roles they choose. But how do you explain the lovefest for Mo'Nique in Precious (seeming to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress by a unanimous decision)? Mo'Nique's acting career previous to that was even more unspectacular than Sandler's.

The truth is, Hollywood is always ready to embrace great performances from otherwise non-great performers. Look at Mickey Rourke's ferocious comeback after his fabulous work in The Wrestler? So why wasn't Sandler embraced for his shape-shifting work in Punch-Drunk Love? Is this evidence that I'm wrong that in placing him in my top 5? Well, Sandler did receive a Golden Globe nomination for his performance - and I'll leave that to you to decide whether or not that's a good thing. I'm pretty convinced that had more people actually seen Punch-Drunk Love (which is a bit of work, considering how strange and laboring the film proved to be for general audiences), the praise for Sandler could have elevated him to a change in a opinion at the very least, to an Oscar nomination at most.

In the end, Sandler's performance is particularly impressive because of the work that surrounds it. That P.T. Anderson was able to coax that kind of work out of an actor known primarily for films like Big Daddy and The Waterboy. In a lot of ways, my placement of Sandler in my non-defiinitive list is more about praise for Anderson than it is for Sandler. Sandler had made a career out of humorously creating characters that have hopeless issues with passive-agression and rage. Anderson's screenplay and whirling direction took particular advantage of it, molding a character whose veiled rage has always been an albatross on his personal life, but learns to use it to help in life and love. I've never seen a performance that goes from elation to despair so quickly without seeming contrived. Consider the 'Pudding Scene' (seen above) where his incredible enthusiasm for buying the pudding is quickly and violently subdued when he finds he won't be able to redeem them for frequent flyer miles immediately. It is a textbook case of a director placing an actor in a position where he can most succeed. And Sandler takes the opportunity and executes something unlike anything else in his career.

It probably isn't fair that the contrast between Punch-Drunk Love and Sandler's other, more typical work makes his performance in Anderson's film seem even more impressive. Perhaps we should spend more time admiring actors whose work is consistently great. There are performers whose great work is rarely recognized because we take their greatness for granted (consider Mark Ruffalo, Laura Linney, or Edward Norton for contemporary examples). But I do feel that Sandler's work here deserves the praise that I have heaped upon it. There's no doubt in my mind that Sean Penn, Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Giamatti or Philip Seymour Hoffman (who also has a great performance in this film - in fact, here's one of the film's best scenes with Hoffman and Sandler) are better performers than Sandler. But I don't think any of them have had a single performance as good as Sandler in Punch Drunk Love. And that's my argument, take it or leave it. You probably won't be able to convince me otherwise.

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