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'Love' at first sight

So there I am at the Toronto Film Festival, eyeing Adam Sandler across the room. He knows and I know that I have never given him a good review. That time we met backstage at Letterman, he was very decent, considering. He said he hoped that someday he would make something I liked. Now he has.

The movie is "Punch-Drunk Love," by Paul Thomas Anderson. The moment it was announced, I got a lot of e-mails from people asking what in the hell Anderson was thinking of, making an Adam Sandler movie. Such is the power of Sandler's presence that it didn't occur to them it might be a Paul Thomas Anderson movie. Now I have seen it, and can report that it is both: An Adam Sandler movie by Paul Thomas Anderson. Imagine a Tom Green movie by Martin Scorsese. No, that's easier.

"Punch-Drunk Love" stars Sandler as the peculiar, mannered operator of a small business, who meets a strange woman (Emily Watson) and follows her to Hawaii after discovering that buying $3,000 in pudding will win him enough frequent flier miles. Sandler plays a character not unlike the person he usually portrays--Variety didn't call him "the king of moronic farce" for nothing--but the movie looks deeper and finds a pool of anger just below the passive-aggressive surface.

Having admired the movie, I went to the party afterward on the reasonable grounds that I might never again be able to do what I was doing right now. I walked over to Adam Sandler and told him I liked his movie.

"I will have to tell my parents, so they can watch your show again," he said. He talked just the way he talks in the movies: Flat and a little childlike, with an edge. "They had to stop watching your show, because it made them say bad words."

I said I could understand how that might be. A human tide separated us, and washed me up the next afternoon for an interview with Paul Thomas Anderson, who after "Boogie Nights" (1997) and "Magnolia" (1999) has emerged as one of the most gifted filmmakers of his generation (he is 32).

The last time I met Anderson, he sat on my back porch in Chicago and promised me that the reproductive equipment of Mark Wahlberg, so memorably on view in "Boogie Nights," was absolutely and in every respect Wahlberg's own. There had been reports it was a special effect, or a stand-in, whatever. Later I learned that the treasures were not, in fact authentic. Did I now accuse Anderson of lying? I didn't even bring it up, mostly because I had forgotten it. So quickly do big issues shrink with the passage of time.

I was in a lather to quiz him on Adam Sandler. Why would a brilliant young auteur throw himself on the altar of the king of moronic farce? "I wanted to work with Sandler so much," he said, "because. if I've ever been kinda sad or down or whatever, I just wanna pop in an Adam Sandler movie."

"That wouldn't cheer me up," I said.

"I love him," Anderson said, "and he's always made me laugh. l like just about all of his movies and have always felt comfort in watching them. It's Saturday night and if I wanna watch something fun, I'm gonna watch an Adam Sandler movie. Or if I'm sad, I'm popping in an Adam Sandler movie. The last thing I would wanna do is watch 'Magnolia,' you know, or 'Breaking the Waves.' So I'm looking at Sandler and thinking God, I wanna get a piece of that. I wanna learn from that dude. What is it that's so appealing about him to so many people? I think he's this great communicator, you know."

"He doesn't seem to communicate very well with the critics."

"This sort of bashing from critics that he's taken is just defeatist, really. His films are obviously good because they're obviously communicating something to a lot of people and they're making them laugh and that's it, at the end of the day."

"I kept an open mind. I hoped to like one of them."

"You should revisit some of them. 'The Wedding Singer,' and 'Big Daddy,' and especially 'Happy Gilmore.' Those three, in particular, I could watch them over and over and over again just from the pure joy that you can feel them putting into making the movie which, is just as much joy as you can feel Robert Altman putting into making into making 'Nashville'."

I said there was something about Sandler that intrigued me, because he is obviously someone with a real talent, and it made me mad when he hid inside that goofy persona.

"He is a pretty nice dude," Anderson said, "and maybe you pick up on that. The second night that I met him, we went to have dinner and we're walking down the street and I've never seen anything like it. I've walked down the street with some big movie stars but walking down the street with him made my heart as warm as you can imagine--because of people's response to him and his sort of openness and response to them. This kid just kinda out of the blue came up and said, 'I'm Jewish, I'm Jewish,' with real sense of pride in being Jewish and Adam said, 'Great.' And it was just because of the 'Hanukkah Song,' you know. And it was like, I wanna steal some of that. I wanna be around that kind of life force."

We are sprawled in overstuffed leather chairs in a back room of the Windsor Arms in Toronto. We are back here so he can smoke. Anderson wears a wrinkled white dress shirt, blue shorts and the regulation four-day growth of beard. When he and Sandler decided that Sander's character would wear a suit and tie throughout "Punch-Drunk Love," you can see how they thought that would be funny.

"Have you made an Adam Sandler movie, or a Paul Thomas Anderson movie?" I asked.

"It's like an art-house Adam Sandler movie," he said.

"It's like you deconstructed the Adam Sandler movies and put them back together again in a new way at a different level."

"That's nice," said Anderson.

"Adam Sandler, who generally generates his own films, could never have made this film. Yet his fans will still be seeing Adam Sandler."

Anderson lit a cigarette. "He just appealed to me, point blank," he said. "He's someone's who's taken such a bashing, but still, he was high on my list. In meeting him it all came clear to me. We have a really similar work ethic. Kind of obsessive and consumed by it. And also, I wanted to learn from him about his attack on stuff. How does he make his movies, what are his concerns? His concerns a lot of times are, what is funny? What will make them laugh? And coming out of making 'Magnolia' and living with that for a while, I went, God, I would really like to take a left turn and make myself happy, get rid of all this cancer and crying."

I said that when I look at Sandler's movies I think I see an anger just below the surface.

"Absolutely. I saw this 'Best of Adam Sandler' DVD from 'Saturday Night Live,' and an amazing thing happened. There's this moment when he's doing this talk show called 'The Denise Show,' about his ex-girlfriend who's left him, and his father calls up and says, 'What are you doing; you're embarrassing the family.' And Adam goes into this fit of rage, screaming at his father, and honest to God I saw this moment where it appears as if the whites of his eyes turn black and they roll back in his head. It was like, he just lost his mind. I would play it back, over and over again, and you can see him kinda snap back to reality. The audience is laughing and it's almost like he finally started to hear them laughing a few seconds later."

"All comedians are said to be tragic at heart."

"I think it's true. It's probably something to do with feeling like an impostor. You beat yourself up and you make yourself feel like you're kinda worthless. It can turn into a rage."

"Have you previewed this film like in a multiplex on Saturday night, in the Valley or somewhere?"


"Let's hypothesize two audiences. One audience would be the festivals at Cannes and Toronto and your local art theatre. The other audience would be Adam Sandler fans who heard he has a new movie out. Do you think they will see two different films?"

"If I've screwed up, they might."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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