Comedians use humor to transcend norms and act outside the rules of civility to express the feelings we strive to keep inside – anger, insecurity, resentment, and selfishness. Many of them assume the freedoms of childhood to unleash the superego and say and do and grab and insult without any restrictions. Adam Sandler is very much in this tradition. His comedies are based on essentially the same character — a sweet but immature guy with an anger management problem. They have been been very successful with adolescent (and formerly adolescent) male audiences, topping the box office almost without exception.
Writer-director P.T. Anderson (“Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia”) has taken that same character and created around it a highly original and intelligent movie. It’s still about a sweet but immature guy with an anger management problem, so I can’t say that the performance is a stretch for Sandler, but he deserves a lot of credit for playing that character straight, without the distance and comfort (and hostility) of laugh lines.
Sandler plays Barry, a man whose affable exterior hides enormous fear and fury. We first see him in a bright blue suit sitting at a desk in a bare corner of a warehouse, talking on the phone to some low-level staff person about the intricacies of a promotion that gives frequent flyer miles for purchases of groceries. Two stunning, almost hallucinatory events occur that no one seems to see but him. First, there is a massive truck accident that just seems to evaporate. Then, a small piano-looking instrument called a harmonium somehow just seems to appear on the sidewalk. He picks it up and brings it inside, and we see that he has an office in the warehouse and is in fact the boss of a business that sells novelty toilet plungers.
All of this tells us that we are embarking on a journey inside Barry, who through the course of the movie will unstop his clogged up feelings, chart a course between the sacred and the profane, and reach toward love and harmony. And it works very, very well on this level, as we see Barry no longer able to bear his current life and therefore willing to take risks, some wiser than others, to allow him to change. Anderson shows us Barry over and over again running through hallways. He confides to his brother-in-law that he needs to talk to someone. He calls a 900 number just to have someone to talk to. Both violate his trust in the most shattering manner, and both unleash siblings (played by real-life siblings) who abuse him emotionally and physically.
His fascination with the frequent flyer mile opportunity leads him to buy hundreds of boxes of chocolate pudding. Even though he does not yet know where he wants to go, and has never really been anywhere, at some level he knows he yearns to go somewhere. When he meets Lena (Emily Watson), he feels that she is what he is longing for. He tries to use his absurd pudding miles to follow her to Hawaii, and when that does not work, he jettisons all dodges and maneuvers and just pays for a ticket. In a tradition that goes back to Shakespeare, it is only in an exotic natural location away from home that the lovers can tell each other the truth and find one another. And, as tradition requires, there is a second-act complication as Barry’s call to the sex line results in a disastrous attempt at extortion.
Watson is luminous, if enigmatic, as the warm-hearted girl who is a little surprised at how drawn she is to Barry. Anderson regular Philip Seymour Hoffman is outstanding as the would-be extortionist.
Audiences are likely to feel a bit punch drunk themselves as they try to make sense of this odd romantic journey with its offbeat dualities, combining extremes of chaos and harmony and love and anger. In one scene Barry and Lena tenderly kiss as they describe the violence of the way they would like to express their feelings. Still, Lena is so completely warm and healthy that the story seems lopsided, even if seen from Barry’s point of view. But it is undeniably an arresting and challenging film. Those expecting an Adam Sandler movie or a romantic comedy will be disappointed, but those who are open to something a little twisted and messy will find it very rewarding.
Parent should know that this movie has a good deal of mature material, including very strong language, sexual references and situations including a call to a telephone sex line, and violence. Parents of Adam Sandler fans should know that this is very different from his other movies and should exercise caution in allowing teenagers to see it.
Families who see this movie should talk about the use of symbols in the movie. Why is the word “love” spelled out in the abrasions on Barry’s knuckles? Compare that to Robert Mitchum’s famous portrayal of a con man posing as a preacher in “Night of the Hunter,” with “love” tattooed across the knuckles of one hand and “hate” tattooed across the other.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Raising Arizona.” Families looking for a more conventional Adam Sandler comedy will enjoy “The Wedding Singer” and “Happy Gilmore.”