Wednesday, October 16, 2002

Interview: "Paul Thomas Anderson Casts Wider Net With Punch-Drunk Love"

Chicago Tribune, Written By Mark Caro
October 16th, 2002

Here's a theory that doesn't particularly apply to "Punch-Drunk Love" director Paul Thomas Anderson, but since we're talking about a filmmaker who approaches everything from odd angles, you'll just have to roll with it:

When rockers such as Talking Heads, R.E.M. and Elvis Costello started out, they occupied their own strange planets, and their fans gravitated toward them to get a handle on Heads front man David Byrne's jittery alienation, R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe's mumbled lyrics or Costello's venom.

But as these performers grew in popularity, they became more aware of their impact on audiences and began to tailor their works accordingly, choreographing their stage moves (particularly Talking Heads and R.E.M.) and making their material more accessible. They were meeting their audiences halfway, sometimes with better artistic results than others.

The 32-year-old Anderson established a loyal cult following with his first three highly personal films, "Hard Eight" (1997), "Boogie Nights" (1997) and "Magnolia" (1999), the last being a three-hours-plus mosaic of troubled father-child relationships that supporters found mesmerizing (this writer included) and detractors deemed interminable. After "Magnolia," Anderson told interviewers that his job is to "communicate" and that he'd love to connect with a broad audience a la Steven Spielberg.

Then he made "Punch-Drunk Love," a 90-minute romantic comedy starring Adam Sandler, the childish, highly marketable star of such popular low-brow comedies as "The Waterboy" and "Big Daddy."

This is where the theory falls flat: "Punch-Drunk Love," which opens Friday, is every bit as idiosyncratic as Anderson's previous films. Sandler fans expecting his typical goofball antics may be surprised to find themselves in an off-kilter world where the actor's nerdiness and repressed anger have a serious edge and most of the humor derives from character and situation rather than broad gags and funny faces.

Anderson is trying to reach a wide audience; he just has a unique way of doing so.

"I don't know. I think everyone's going to like this movie — I hope," Anderson said on the phone from his Los Angeles home, where he was recuperating from a bug that prompted him to cancel his trip last week to the Chicago International Film Festival. ("I've got the most tortured stomach on the planet right now.")

"You always think about an audience when you're making a movie," he added, "like 'Is this funny? Are they going to see this bit of business?'" With "Punch-Drunk Love" the goal was "to try to make a movie that I would want to watch. I'm very proud of 'Magnolia,' but I really don't want to watch it. But I would like to watch this on a Saturday night."

Will the "Waterboy" crowd share his enthusiasm?

"The 'Waterboy' crowd is a very big crowd," he said. "I don't know. I know this movie might not be for everyone. I think that if you like Adam Sandler, you will love this movie because it's really just him as a performer that people love so much, that I love."

Sandler plays Barry Egan, an emotionally constipated entrepreneur (he sells novelty plungers) who's constantly being razzed by his seven older sisters and who sporadically releases his rage by smashing glass doors or restaurant bathrooms. Like Anderson, he says "I don't know" a lot.

Barry has devised a scheme to accumulate frequent-flier miles through pudding purchases (a subplot based on an actual story), and he is transformed by the love of one of his sisters' friends, Lena (Emily Watson), who perhaps has a screw loose herself.

Like "Magnolia" and "Boogie Nights," "Punch-Drunk Love" is set in Anderson's native San Fernando Valley, but it takes place in a pixilated reality where characters at any moment may be surprised by violence (a car crash, an attack by vengeful phone-sex henchmen) or wonder (a harmonium deposited in front of Barry's workplace, an unexpected declaration of affection).

Anderson, who did a short stint as a "Saturday Night Live" writer to prepare for "Punch-Drunk Love," said his biggest inspiration was "musicals, really, like the (Fred) Astaire-(Ginger) Rogers movies. I just love watching those. Everybody loves to watch those. They're like chicken soup, you know. That kind of feeling, that kind of length, 90 minutes with music, handsome-looking couple. I know that it's not exactly like that, but (I wanted) that flavor, like a bouncing-ball kind of flavor."

Critical reactions are leaning toward the positive but running the gamut. The New York Times' A.O. Scott raved: "What Mr. Anderson wants to do is recapture, without nostalgia, the giddiness and sweep of old movies, and his mastery of the emotional machinery of the medium is breathtaking."

J. Hoberman of the Village Voice appreciated the movie's "admirable disdain for audience expectations" but concluded: "As elegantly crafted as it often is, Anderson's movie is essentially a one-trick pony that, hampered by an undeveloped script, ultimately pulls up lame."

Passionate debates about his work don't bother Anderson.

"It's great," he said. "Yeah, it's all great."

And he's not preoccupied with making everyone happy.

"You can crawl around your own (insides) for a really long time trying to please people," he said. "That's really a dead-end street."

The funny part is that at least some elements that annoy some viewers are likely to be the same ones that tickle others, such as Sandler's restraint and the movie's unwillingness to let you settle into a comfort zone. Using his trademark layered dialogue and a sometimes-aggressive percussive score from Jon Brion, Anderson makes the viewer share Barry's early frustration to such an extent that you're ready to smash glass doors yourself.

"All good movies make you uncomfortable," Anderson said. "Like 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' is uncomfortable, when it's suspenseful and all the obstacles (are) getting in his way. All great stories are stories of jeopardy, right?"

Anderson also dismisses the often-repeated notion that "Punch-Drunk Love" is a minor work, especially in comparison to "Magnolia" and the 2-1/2-hour-long "Boogie Nights."

"There's no such thing as a minor work if you do this job," Anderson said. "I worked longer on this movie than any of my other movies. And probably harder and more intensely in some ways."

Filmmaker Jonathan Demme ("The Silence of the Lambs," "Something Wild"), who has gone from being a primary Anderson influence to a friend, was unequivocal in his feelings.

"He's an artist, man," Demme said while in town recently. "There's stuff in this movie, endless stuff in this movie that we've never seen before: situations, images, characters. He's just a brilliant, brilliant filmmaker, and he's an absolute original. I wish he'd get the heck out of the Valley now. I want to see Paul branch out. I want the world to be his canvas."

"I want to get out of the Valley too," Anderson said. "I will next time."

Anderson's work on "Punch-Drunk Love" won him the best director prize at the Cannes Film Festival, which seems fitting because even his critics acknowledge his intuitive command of mixing images and sound. He said learning new tricks is "the fun part," and on "Punch-Drunk Love" his biggest lesson involved scheduling shooting times to take advantage of sunlight for "beautiful" and "theatrical" effects.

"It's kind of a nice thing when you do that, when you're at the mercy of the biggest light in the world," he said. "It's bigger and more powerful than you, so you have to go to it. It's a lot of fun chasing the sun."

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