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Punch-Drunk Love is one of the best movies of 2002. It’s surreal, funny, and stylish. Most surprising of all, it proves that Adam Sandler is a very good actor (under the right circumstances).

Boy Meets Girl, Thugs

Sandler makes his introversion almost physicalBarry Egan (Sandler) is a shy man. He’s a little dim, but that makes him all the more loveable. He works at an import warehouse selling deluxe plungers and other gewgaws. He has seven sisters and no brothers. He admires “DJ Justice,” a morning-show shock jock whom Barry honestly thinks is sharp and witty.

Two things happen to Barry that begin to change his life. First, he calls a phone sex number one night, to his great regret. The number he called is a scam, and afterwards, the crooked operators (led by Philip Seymour Hoffman) try to blackmail him and even send thugs to intimidate him.

Second, through one of his sisters Barry meets a girl. Lena (Emily Watson) proves to be a good match for him. Their chemistry seems to be based on mutual loneliness, rather than any sort of animal attraction, but for these two, that’s good enough.

Barry worries that the phone-sex thugs will either hurt his budding relationship with Lena or that they will hurt Lena herself. He has to find the strength to stand up to the thugs if he wants things to work out with his new girl.

Acting Sandler

The question on everyone’s lips is: can Adam Sandler really act? The answer is a qualified yes. As long as he’s playing some version of himself, he can fill the role better than anyone.

Look at Sandler’s films and you’ll see that he always plays a sweet-natured man-child with an occasionally violent temper. Writer/Director Paul Thomas Anderson doesn’t take any chances casting Sandler in the role of Barry, a sweet-natured man-child with a temper. The only difference from Sandler’s other movies is that in Punch-Drunk Love Sandler plays the straight man, not the comic.

Surreal Sympathy

Anderson makes Punch-Drunk Love hilarious in an understated, surreal way, and in doing so he generates real sympathy for Barry.

The scene that kicks off the film is worthy of Dali or Bunuel. Two vans speed along a street in pre-dawn L.A., Barry watching from the sidewalk. One van flips over, smashing down the street; the other van screeches to a halt in front of Barry, deposits a small piano, then tears away down the street, leaving Barry — and us — to ponder whether what just happened was real or a dream.

The film has visually comic cues throughout, like Sandler’s loud, electric blue suit, or the fact that he almost never wears anything else. Even the bright, clinical, fluorescent lights in the grocery store elicit a laugh because they imply an almost inhuman cleanliness.

Sandler himself is funny without telling any jokes. His almost physical attempts at introversion are both sympathetic and funny. He delivers some very funny, surreal dialogue with the perfect flustered straight face, like the scene at his sisters’ party where his overwhelmed brain short circuits, and he blurts out that he’s “busy as very food.”

The sound (by Gary Rydstrom and Christopher Scarabosio) and music (by Jon Brion) put us inside Barry’s head. A scene of chaos for Barry — work, family, and girlfriend are all competing for his attention — is accompanied by relentless music made up of the raw sounds of the warehouse. It’s so loud, confusing, and demanding that it masterfully raises the audience’s frustration and pulse rate to Barry’s level.

By the end, we care whether Barry and Lena can live happily ever after because we’ve walked a mile in Barry’s shoes. And what a long, strange mile it’s been.

People may buy tickets to Punch-Drunk Love to see whether Adam Sandler can act, but the real star of the show is director P.T. Anderson and his funny, surreal sense of style.