Taking a Hit 

Adam Sandler, seriously, in Punch-Drunk Love, plus the awful Ghost Ship.

Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love, the Adam Sandler vehicle the director has referred to (with some mixture of cheekiness and honesty) as an "art-house Adam Sandler film," is essentially a love story about a man who discovers a gimmick to obtain cheap frequent-flyer miles and then finds a reason to use them.

The film was seemingly designed with its lead actor in mind: Anderson riffs on Sandler's icon status, offering an alternative reading of the emotionally erratic, autistic man-child character Sandler has cultivated in a series of successful lowbrow comedies. But Anderson's use of his star is even cleverer. While Sandler is certainly a willing and active participant in the character transformation (revelation?), Anderson also seems to be using the actor's own discomfort at being in a "serious" movie to the film's advantage.

Sandler plays Barry Egan, the owner of a Los Angeles-based company that distributes novelty items. Emotionally unstable, lonely, and hounded by seven subtly harpy-like sisters, Barry seems to require intense concentration just to make it through a workday. He calls phone-sex lines just to have someone to talk to, and he's so borderline obsessive, he discovers a loophole in a Healthy Choice promotion that will allow him to obtain a million frequent-flyer miles by buying only $3,000 worth of pudding (this part is based on a true story), despite the fact that he doesn't plan on doing any traveling. ("Airline miles is like a currency these days," he explains to business partner Lance.)

Those expecting a typical Sandler comedy are cued in from the beginning that this isn't another Happy Gilmore or Waterboy. Rather than the sitcom-like flatness and conventionality of all other Adam Sandler vehicles, we get a meticulously designed world composed of protective corners of shadow and great swaths of natural light, extremely careful framing, and an equally purposeful deployment of color. Punch-Drunk Love is also remarkable for its disarming interplay of silence and noise. (This film won't win an Oscar for sound editing -- some military or sci-fi/fantasy epic will -- but it deserves one.) And there are no opening credits whatsoever.

There is something of the silent comedian in Sandler's terse, iconic (he wears a bright-blue suit throughout the film) performance, but the film finds its tension precisely in Barry's inarticulateness. Barry's most common piece of dialogue is a limp "I don't know," and he has a penchant for beginning negative statements with an acquiescing "yeah": When one sister tries to set him up on a blind date, Barry's response is "Yeah I don't do that." ("You don't do anything," she huffs.) When the phone-sex operator calls back the next day to demand more money, Barry responds, "Yeah I can't afford that." But Barry's wet-blanket exterior hides a rage that frequently explodes -- often at himself, sometimes at others.

Barry's situation is most fully revealed during an extraordinary party sequence in which Sandler conveys profound discomfort amid Barry's flux of sisters and their husbands and children. This sequence does for the aggressive verbal play of siblings what John Cassavetes' Husbands did for the nuclear family: exposes it as a source of overwhelming anxiety. Endlessly recounting a cruel childhood game in which they would torture Barry by calling him "gay boy," Barry's sisters disguise menace behind playfulness, and Barry snaps, smashing a series of glass doors. Barry later confesses to one brother-in-law, a doctor, "I don't like myself sometimes. Can you help me? I don't know what's wrong because I don't know how other people are. I sometimes cry a lot for no reason," then breaks down in tears. In any other Sandler film, the sequence would be played for comedy (the brother-in-law is actually a dentist), but here the audience is likely to be unsure of how to respond.

Into this life comes Emily Watson's Lena. Watson is a very unconventional romantic lead with her old-fashioned, Kewpie-doll look and further ties the film to an older era (as does a gratuitous but lovely iris-in to Lena's and Barry's clasped hands). Lena pursues Barry and falls for him. Why this seemingly together woman embraces a mess like Barry is a mystery. Why does she pretend everything is normal when an anxious Barry smashes up a men's room and gets them kicked out of a restaurant during their first date? Why does she laugh so generously at Barry's nervous anecdote about a lame radio deejay he finds humor in? It could easily be said that Lena's utter lack of motivation is the film's fatal flaw. (Is she some cousin to Watson's unforgettable Bess in the problematic Breaking the Waves, who gives of herself without question or hesitation?) But maybe Lena is Punch-Drunk Love's rain of frogs. Odd things happen in P.T. Anderson movies.

And though this is largely a two-person film, something must be said about the work of Anderson regulars Luis GuzmÝn and Philip Seymour Hoffman: Are there two better supporting actors in film today? Hoffman is a brilliant scenery-chewer who is great yet again as a Provo, Utah, sleazebag who owns the phone-sex operation that tries to extort Barry. And GuzmÝn's Lance? Does anyone do more with less than GuzmÝn? Anderson makes great, subtle use of this compulsively watchable actor in a small role. Notice the way a scene in which Lena initially asks Barry out is played entirely through GuzmÝn's chaste but suspicious glances.

Over the course of four films, Anderson has established himself as one of American cinema's most dazzling and daring young talents. Hard Eight was a debut that served notice. And Boogie Nights, seen as a Pulp Fiction derivative by some at the time, has only deepened over the years. (Its greatest connection to Pulp Fiction now is clearly the way both films are palpably giddy about the possibilities of filmmaking.) But Anderson's last film, Magnolia, felt like an ending of sorts. With its Altmanesque cavalcade of characters and intersecting plotlines, its courageous sincerity, and its Rubicon-crossing rain of frogs, it was operatic filmmaking at its most impossibly grandiose. Where to go from there? Rather than raising the bar even higher, Anderson smartly withdraws from the precipice. Rather than opera, Punch-Drunk Love is more of a chamber piece -- brief, muted, revolving around a few characters.

Given the odd mix of expectations viewers are likely to bring to the film, Punch-Drunk Love may take a while to sink in. I was unsure about it upon first viewing, loved it the second time. It's a brave little film (under 90 minutes) with an extraordinary performance from Sandler that is likely to be a career aberration, and it leaves so many images floating around in one's mind: Sandler tap-dancing in a grocery-store aisle; the surreal vision of Barry disappearing down an airport tunnel en route to his first flight; the silhouetted embrace and kiss in front of a pastel burst of life outside a hotel window; Lena embracing Barry as he mutters helplessly, "I don't freak out very often, no matter what my sister says. I don't freak out!"; and a contented final shot of Barry and Lena in harmony. -- Chris Herrington

We're going to play a brief game that explains my disappointment in this week's horror offering and reveals the limitations of my smug wit. Fill in the blank: GHOST SHI__. If you answered with a "P," you have correctly named the new nautical schlockfest from junior-level production company Dark Castle (The House on Haunted Hill, 13 Ghosts). If you answered with a "T," you have correctly guessed the content of my review, were I allowed only two words.

Ghost Ship can boast a truly stylish opening: A romantic 1960s movie score and title font for the opening credits flash us back to '62, aboard the Italian luxury liner Antonia Graza. We are in the ballroom, and happy, elegant couples dance dreamily to the torchy musical stylings of a gorgeous Italian songstress. A little girl looks on in boredom and loneliness. The captain approaches her and beckons her to dance. She does, and for a moment, we are deceived into thinking that all of this is very nice for the girl. Suddenly, all of the ballroom's occupants, except the young girl, are dead, in the most gruesome and expedient mass-killing I have seen in recent film. The girl is, again, alone. That's the first seven minutes or so, and considering that it opens a hokey movie like this, it's terrific! Alas, the film plods on for a good 81 more minutes with (almost) nothing as good to show for it.

After the cool scene, we are introduced to a fairly typical band of likable misfits working on a salvage tugboat the kind of crew we are accustomed to seeing assembled for ensemble action or horror films like Predator, Armageddon, or The Abyss or movies closer to Ghost Ship's level of cheesy inadequacy, like 1980s aquatic equivalents Leviathan and Deep Star Six or the poor Deep Blue Sea. This movie is really Julianna Margulies' big movie break, and she is the obligatory tough-as-nails female (Ö la Sigourney Weaver or Maria Conchita Alonso), while good actor Gabriel Byrne is the cap'n, doing some fine, grizzled work reminiscent of Robert Shaw and his shark story in Jaws. The team is approached by a naive young pilot named Ferriman (cue ominous music here), who has photos of a spooky, drifting vessel that, floating in international waters, could legally be a bonanza for the crew. Or it could be a ... ghost ship! Is the team up for the task of hauling it in and splitting the goods? You bet!

What ensues is lots of looking through dank, rusted hallways. Lots of it. And after a while, you start to want to see someone killed to end the agony of yet more hallways. As promised in the film's title, ghosts appear, in the forms of the little girl from the opening scene and then some not-so-nice spirits. The only interesting thing about these ghosts is figuring out which are naughty and which are nice. Why would a passenger load of 600, horribly murdered, come back to do harm to innocent scavengers? It takes a long time to figure this out, and the results lead one to question the motivations of at least one of the ghosts (really, only four ghosts have anything to do here a paltry number of apparitions, considering the budget). But who cares?

Ghost Ship has a lot of the flaws of other ham-fisted horror vehicles a mix of good and not-so-good actors and unanswered questions: They're on a floating graveyard, at night. Where is that light coming from? Wouldn't they be cold swimming in Alaskan waters? Shouldn't the deaths of their best friends register in the following scene? And granted the sweetness of the first scene, nothing as visually interesting occurs afterward, except for a techno-scored reprise with lots of jerky Matrix-y camerawork and more deaths, a welcome reprieve from gloomy hallways and the lackluster deaths of our 2002 tugboat team. Stylish but stupid. I would steer clear of this bloated, beached nonsense and toward the genuine chills of The Ring. Bo List

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