Call Him Unhappy Gilmore

Think of "Punch-Drunk Love" as a palate cleanser in Paul Thomas Anderson's extraordinary career. After his two long, high-calorie epics of the San Fernando Valley--"Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia"--this is sorbet. Who would have guessed that he'd follow those anguished meditations with a 90-minute Adam Sandler romantic comedy? But before you get too comfortable with that notion, let it be said that Anderson, one of the most exciting American filmmakers of his generation, is incapable of making a romantic comedy that resembles any other. "Punch-Drunk Love" is one dark, strange-tasting sorbet, its sweetness shot through with startling, unexpected flavors. It's a romantic comedy on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Indeed, for the first mysterious, unsettling and absolutely mesmerizing 30 minutes, there's no way of predicting where this tale may be heading, or what genre it belongs to. Sandler, dressed in a bright blue jacket and tie, plays Barry Egan, a fearful, volatile, socially maladroit salesman of novelty plumbing items (his dice-and-money toilet plunger sells big in Vegas). A borderline agoraphobe who's picked on by his seven sisters, he lives alone in a sterile Valley apartment, is prone to sudden violent outbursts of rage and is obsessed with his scheme to acquire 1.5 million frequent-flier miles by buying Healthy Choice pudding. Never mind that he has never been on an airplane and has no intention to travel. That is, until he meets his sister's adorable friend Lena (a luminous Emily Watson), who inspires the love-struck Barry to follow her on a business trip to Honolulu. He will also make it to Utah to confront the extortionist (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who has sent four menacing Mormon brothers to threaten his life, all because, one lonely night, he called a sex-phone service and foolishly gave them his credit-card number.

Like Jon Brion's schizoid musical score, which is liltingly romantic one moment and abrasively percussive the next, "Punch-Drunk Love" is determined to throw you off balance. Sandler's performance keeps you guessing when, where and whether this self-hating, painfully self-conscious man might explode. There is danger lurking under his bland exterior, visible to everyone but Lena, who sees only... what? This is the mystery, and the problem, at the heart of the movie. You must take Lena's love for Barry on faith, for her character is seriously underwritten. What does she see in the guy? Why would she commit herself to him, rather than have him committed? The bravura filmmaking (there's not a dull shot in the whole movie) dazzles you from start to finish, but the movie is an emotional jigsaw puzzle that's missing a couple of crucial pieces. Anderson has willed "Punch-Drunk Love" to be a romantic comedy; its powerful undercurrents, however, keep tugging it in other, darker directions, resulting in a movie more amazing than satisfying.