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Film

How 'Punch Drunk Love' hinted at Adam Sandler's acting credentials

The Safdie brothers‘ 2019 hit, Uncut Gems, is rightly hailed as a classic piece of modern cinema. A fast-paced crime thriller that constantly makes you feel that you’re experiencing the onset of a heart attack, the film is one of the brothers’ best directorial outings and features many of their now instantly recognisable hallmarks. Filmed predominantly on Kodak 35mm film, the flick has a gritty edge augmented by its visceral camera work and brilliant script.

Apart from the cinematography, there exists another reason why the film was so widely acclaimed. This was the fact that the story’s main character, jeweller and gambling addict, Howard Ratner, whose complex and flawed character needed to be perfectly executed, was portrayed brilliantly. However, it was the way – and the person who portrayed it – that made the film such a shocking yet loveable example of modern cinema.

The leading man was Adam Sandler. When the news broke, a murmur of shocked surprised and underlining mockery that he’d been cast in such a serious role echoed around the industry. For Generation X and Millennials, we all know Adam Sandler as one of the kings of 1990s and ’00s comedy, a man with more terrible films to his name than good ones.

For over twenty years, Sandler had been widely typecast as the go-to guy for the sort of gross-out, over the top comedies that we don’t really get anymore, owing to society’s shift in attitudes. In the mid-late 1990s, Sandler starred in classics such as Billy MadisonHappy GilmoreThe Waterboy and The Wedding Singer, delivering some of the most unhinged, hapless yet loveable characters, who are some of the era’s most enduring. 

However, when his role in Uncut Gems was announced, the main reason everybody was shocked was that Sandler was trying his hand at auteur-driven cinema, something seemingly out of his range. This is slightly understandable when you note that his films have earned him nine Golden Raspberry Awards, and 37 Raspberry nominations, more than any other actor save for Sly Stallone. 

When you look back forensically, though, it becomes clear that underneath all of the terrible outings such as 2011’s Jack and Jill or 2014’s The Cobbler, Sandler is actually a very impressive actor. Two years prior to Uncut Gems, in 2017, he starred in Noah Baumbach‘s acclaimed comedy-drama The Meyerowitz Stories, a project that was overlooked in the mainstream but remains a terrific example of his talent.

However, the first indication of Sandler’s skill came back in 2002. His first true foray into auteur cinema came in the form of Paul Thomas Anderson’s equally overlooked comedy, Punch-Drunk Love. Sandler plays the hapless protagonist, Barry Egan, a failing entrepreneur who is in love with his sister’s co-worker, Lena Leonard, played by Emily Watson.

Featuring visual interludes, fast-paced camera work with many a tracking shot, and Anderson’s typically hazy use of colours and production style, the film is a cracking watch. Whilst the acting is brilliant across the board, Sandler is the standout, and one would even go as far as to posit that this is his best film role of all time.

Even if you disagree with the previous argument, you cannot deny the depth of his character. He takes the darkness that he touched on with characters like Happy Gilmore to an altogether different level. Unrestrained by a rigid plot, the narrative lends itself to Sandler finding his true quality. Egan exudes obsession, anger, love and power, all in one frustrating ball of energy that drives the film’s meandering and surreal plot. 

In a way, it is not unreasonable to see Punch-Drunk Love, as a spiritual precursor to Anderson’s 2014 outing Inherent Vice, and in this sense, somewhat of a successor to 1998’s the Big Lebowski. A madcap journey featuring every possible emotion, there’s prostitutes, business, violence and extortion, all in just 95 minutes. His comedic back and forths with Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s mattress selling extortionist, Dean Trumbell, are nothing short of genius.

Without Sandler’s incredibly dense performance, the film would not be the same. It was the first indicator of his prowess as an actor and shows that if he is given a good enough script that isn’t shackled by the tropes of a mainstream genre, he can actually do very well at carrying a three-dimensional character onto the big screen. Here’s to hoping Sandler decides to do more auteur-driven cinema, and another link up with Anderson would indeed be incredible.

Watch the trailer for Punch-Drunk Love, below.

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