Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

With Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, Luis Guzman and Philip Seymour Hoffman

PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE is one of the least charming love stories to come out of Hollywood since Albert Brooks' MODERN ROMANCE. Guys in the audience may find its protagonist easier to identify with than to like, even if the film clearly sympathizes with him. Its vision of love has little to do with romance per se: its real agenda is a character study of an extremely flawed man. On a first viewing, its sensibility seemed halfway between Todd Solondz's harsh misanthropy and Wes Anderson's warm humanism. On a second one, it seemed less witty and abrasive but far more compassionate and touching.

Barry Egan (Sandler) runs a company that makes plastic plungers. Although he seems to be a competent businessman, he's a failure in most other aspects of his life. Obsessed with collecting frequent flyer miles, he buys vast quantities of Healthy Choice pudding in order to clip their receipts and cash them in. Well into his 30s, he seems incapable of communicating with other people, especially his seven sisters.  Teased by them at a party, he kicks down a plate glass window. When he calls a phone sex line, he winds up talking about his business, remaining resolutely chaste even as the operator talks about her shaved pussy. (This subplot turns out to be the pretext for an elaborate scam.) However, one of his sisters introduces him to Lena (Watson), her co-worker. He becomes attracted to her, although their first date is ruined by him destroying a restaurant bathroom.

In a number of ways, PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE marks a departure for Andersons. Shockingly  brief for him, it clocks in  just over an hour and a half.  He's abandoned the multi-character, epic structure of BOOGIE NIGHTS and MAGNOLIA to make a film with just one real character. Always a cinephile and a maker of movie-movies, his taste has gotten a bit more adventurous this time around. Still under Robert Altman's spell (his influence is  present in the cacophonous sound design and the use of a Shelley Duvall song from Altman's POPEYE), he's obviously  spent some time watching 50s musicals and comedies, especially Frank Tashlin's. While Anderson hasn't picked up Tashlin's satirical humor, he's learned a lot from his film's colorful, expressionist look. Barry's blue suit is always brighter than everything else in the room, and the whites in his office are sometimes blinding. Rather than fading to black as punctuation, Anderson fades to shimmering rainbows.

The director has a real knack for summing up Barry's isolation in a single  devastating image. The film begins with a long-shot of Barry's desk shoved into a room's corner, at the opposite end of the set from the camera. Except for the brown desk, everything in the room is either blue or white. The passage leading up to Barry's phone sex call epitomizes this: as he waits for the operator to call him back, he cringes  at the right end of his table. At his most uncomfortable  moments, the camera seems to be pushing himself back into a wall.

Sandler's face doesn't express much emotion, but its surface affectlessness doesn't  conceal his real feelings. His laughter is always nervous, probably because he is always nervous. He's gawky and physically awkward.  PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE shares one major similarity with BILLY MADISON, the only other Sandler film I've seen. In both films, he plays a man-child, but he's cute (and non-violent) in BILLY MADISON and creepy here. Billy gets porno mags in the mail; Barry probably wouldn't know what to do with them. They're similar personae, but PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE presents the ugly flipside.

Undeniably, PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE suffers from a sexist streak. Barry's sisters are shrill harpies with much the same personality: the party scene is the film's loudest and most Altmanesque. Judging from the entire family's behavior and a scene in which Barry tells Lena how lucky she is to be an only child, their parents must have been real monsters.  Lena exists mainly as a plot device, wasting Watson's considerable talent. (That said,  Guzman and Hoffman. are treated the same way. One wonders if there was a longer cut in which all these actors had more substantial parts.) However, it's an equally unflattering, if more sympathetic, view of American masculinity. Barry can't express himself, constantly lies when called on his attitudes or behavior,  can't deal with women and can barely deal with men.  Judging from what we see of his workplace, he succeeds in business modestly and mostly by accident: he spends more time on the phone, cutting coupons or playing the harmonium than working. Whenever his anger boils to the surface, he responds by smashing something. No screwball comedy hero, he's a Travis Bickle in the making.

Except for HARD EIGHT, Anderson's films have always felt more than a little disconnected from reality. In particular, BOOGIE NIGHTS  felt like a  nostalgic glance at a period when the director was a child, drawing mostly on his album and videotape collection. .MAGNOLIA eventually took a leap into pure fantasy (although rains of frogs have occurred), yet it leaned far closer to genuine emotion. PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE may be even more stylized, but it too hits home pretty  hard, rather than simply fiddling with comic conventions. If mannerism usually means style over substance, Anderson has managed to have his cake and eat it too, expressing substance through an excess of style (much like 50s American melodramas). Formalist exercises don't come much better than this.

Without giving anything away, I can say that the key scene of PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE does not take place between Barry and Lena. It happens between  him and Hoffman's "pervert"-punishing con man,  justifying the seemingly overextended subplot about the phone sex scam and its many complications. The lessons Barry has learned from love become clear here, as do the full implications of the title.  Travis Bickle has been pushed aside, and Anderson has made his masterpiece.