Thursday, September 19, 2002

Interview: "Who's Laughing Now?"

City Beat, Written By Steve Ramos
September 19th, 2002

Paul Thomas Anderson and Adam Sandler are Toronto Fest's unlikeliest pair

TORONTO -- Director Paul Thomas Anderson enjoys the last laugh at a Toronto International Film Festival news conference on behalf of his newest film, Punch-Drunk Love, a romantic-comedy about a hot-tempered businessman, Barry Egan (Adam Sandler), whose life improves after falling in love with Lena (Emily Watson), a soft-spoken stranger.

Punch-Drunk Love premiered to critical praise earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival. Still, Toronto press and audiences had a hard time believing that Anderson, considered by many as Hollywood's best young filmmaker, could make a good movie with comedian Adam Sandler.

Anderson's name was a frequent topic on the days leading to Punch-Drunk Love's North American premiere. Veteran director Paul Schrader, in town to promote his own film, Auto Focus, about the sexually promiscuous life of 1960s TV actor Bob Crane and his unsolved murder in 1978, lists Anderson as one his favorite filmmakers.

"PT Anderson is definitely someone making interesting films today," Schrader said, speaking early in the festival. "His films really hold your attention from start to finish." Of course, Schrader wasn't sure what to make of Anderson's pairing with Sandler.

At a Thursday afternoon screening, Toronto press discovered the truth behind Punch-Drunk Love's Cannes hype. Of the 345 films that played at this year's Toronto Fest, Punch-Drunk Love could be the film that receives the strongest and most universal praise, as well as the biggest critical boost in its profile. Basically, during the festival's final days, nobody could stop talking about how much they liked the film.

At a packed press conference immediately after Punch-Drunk Love's first screening, Anderson answers the one question everyone wants to know: Why would one of America's most respected directors make a movie with comedian Adam Sandler?

"I think he's wonderful," Anderson says, sitting at a table next to Sandler. "I've always loved his movies. I've always loved seeing his movies. You think, who do you want to be around? Who do you want to work with? Actually, it's more who do you want to be near? It's really an appreciation for him."

Before watching the film, the idea of Anderson collaborating with Sandler appears misguided. Sandler's acting reputation is centered in juvenile slapstick like Happy Gilmore and Mr. Deeds. Meanwhile, Anderson creates sprawling ensemble dramas like Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Once Punch-Drunk Love lights up the screen, you're reminded that the film industry is a business of opportunities.

Director Curtis Hanson was a director of forgettable thrillers like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and The River Wild before he received the chance to show his dramatic skills with smart films like L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys. This same lesson also applies to Sandler. He was stuck in moronic comedies until Anderson gave him the opportunity to show his emotional side.

The most romantic moment in Punch-Drunk Love occurs late in the film. Egan (Sandler) leaves his San Fernando Valley office and travels to Hawaii to surprise Lena (Watson), the woman who has won his heart. Anderson films their dark silhouettes as they embrace in a hotel doorway. While Barry and Lena kiss, the shadows of passersby create a musical backdrop. The impact is emotional and heartfelt.

There were a lot of great films that dazzled audiences at this year's Toronto Fest. François Ozon's 8 Women is a lively, laugh-out-loud whodunit inspired by classic MGM musicals. Boosted by an ensemble that includes some of France's leading actresses -- Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Fanny Ardant and Virginia Ledoyen -- 8 Women's greatest joys are the song-and-dance numbers performed by its star cast.

Ralph Fiennes' unsettling performance as a man recently discharged from a mental institution is the highlight of director David Cronenberg's nightmarish drama Spider. A heartfelt story and believable lead performances from Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid and Dennis Haysbert make writer/director Todd Hayne's period melodrama, Far From Heaven, more than a homage to 1950s Douglas Sirk melodramas. Yet, among all these festival films, Punch-Drunk Love is the one critics can't wait to see again.

Sandler is well aware how surprised critics are by his performance. In fact, he's looking forward to what promises to be the first good reviews of his career. He hasn't been a critic's darling, at least, until now.

"I remember when I made Billy Madison thinking that it would be great when it comes out, and they write stuff about it and my parents will read it," Sandler says. "I remember when it came out and reading about it and not knowing critics would hate me and hate what I'm doing. I called my friends up and asked, 'What's it like in your hometown? Oh, there too?'

"I've been rejected by stand-up crowds since I was 17. I know in my heart that I work hard trying to make funny movies, and I believe in those movies. I know critics object to what I do. But when I was 17 getting into it, I didn't say I was going to make movies that please critics. I wanted to do the type of movies like what Eddie Murphy movies did for me as a kid."

Sandler has had a successful film career for 10 years. He understands that Punch-Drunk Love will change his longstanding persona as a kind-hearted doofus. He admits that the prospect is exciting.

"I don't know how to describe what I think I did," Sandler says. "I did a movie with a guy who I think is an incredible filmmaker. I play a role he wrote for me that I thought was a great part. I thought it was a challenge for me to do, but I also thought I could actually do it.

"I'm not saying that I'm going to give up making a certain kind of movie. I love the movies that I made in the past, but this experience was incredible. I want to test myself, and this guy tested me."

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