[ed. note: With Adam Sandler's new film Just Go With It hitting theaters this week, we've been locked in a debate over Sandler's best. After some shouting and even a passionate defenses of 50 First Dates, we decided to take the discussion to you guys, with each of us picking a day to present our argument for Sandler's absolute best movie. Yesterday our own Katey Rich argued for 1998's The Wedding Singer, and today we have Sandler’s first venture into unknown territory: Punch-Drunk Love.]
By 2002 Adam Sandler was no longer “that funny guy with the guitar on Saturday Night Live.” He wasn’t even “that guy from Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison.” By 2002 Adam Sandler was an A-list movie star whose presence on a poster was as close to a $100 million box office guarantee that one could find. He found his shtick jumping from goofy to unhinged, and audiences couldn’t get enough. Then he decided to make a movie with Paul Thomas Anderson that to this day marks his high point as an actor.
In Punch-Drunk Love, Adam Sandler plays a character, Barry Egan, with more layers than we’ve ever seen from him before. His trademark anger is still present, but it’s grounded in both passion and depression instead of simply being used as a punch line. He’s still goofy, but it comes from awkward shyness and, of course, love. Barry shares many characteristics with Sandler’s other characters, but he’s finally given something the rest never had: depth and development.
Beyond Sandler’s performance, what makes the film so spectacular is how beautifully odd it is. The story begins when a taxi mysteriously drops a harmonium in the middle of the street. Barry owns his own business selling designer plungers that he calls “fungers.” He has devised a scheme in which he buys thousands upon thousands of pudding cups which allow him to fly around the world for free. The plot unfolds like a fever dream, the audience never knowing what to expect next, a quality never seen again in any of Sandler’s other films.
There’s a tragedy behind this film and that’s the fact that Adam Sandler will never make a movie like it ever again. Punch-Drunk Love is the least successful of all 21 movies the comedian has starred in since 1995, and making another like it would require passion and effort, two things that aren’t required when making movies like Grown Ups and Bedtime Stories. He can sleepwalk through those roles, watch them make more than double their budget, and then rake in the money. Even Funny People, which many believed would shed new light on the Sandler persona, was just Sandler playing himself for two-and-a-half hours. He’s no longer interested in being challenged by a director as skilled and complex as Paul Thomas Anderson. As a result, Punch-Drunk Love is a movie that deserves to be cherished, if not only because it shows off Sandler’s true potential.
[Watch for more Adam Sandler's Best Movie arguments coming later this week right here.]