P.T. Anderson’s Limp Neuroticism

Fresh from several baffling stops on the festival circuit, the alleged comedy Punch-Drunk Love , starring the inexplicably bankable Adam Sandler, finally lands for a commercial run this week like a bloated dirigible fresh out of helium. Some critics are hailing it as a new kind of masturbatory humor from the Farrelly Brothers school of deluded frat-house vulgarity. I call it the modern equivalent of the kind of 15th-century torture that would have had Torquemada tap-dancing.

This is the fourth film by Paul Thomas Anderson, the pretentious, long-winded writer-director who brought us the 12-inch plastic penis in Boogie Nights and the apocalyptic rain of frogs that destroyed the San Fernando Valley in the numbing Magnolia . His films consist of pointless ideas strung together with technically innovative camera tricks, neither of which contribute to any kind of coherent narrative. A small band of critics respond with breathy accolades. I love the quote whore who calls Punch-Drunk Love “a toothless, frothy margarita of a film.” I mean, do they get paid for this stuff or what?

We are back in the streets where Boogie Nights and Magnolia are probably still unfolding. This time, the camera focuses on another card-carrying California neurotic (it’s all those mung bean sprouts they eat out there, you know) named Barry, a sub-mental mook who sells retail merchandise from a storage warehouse. Barry has seven sisters who all look exactly alike and interrupt his day trying to set him up with girls. Barry is so inarticulate, unloved, emotionally impacted and low in self-esteem that he wanders through supermarkets reading labels without knowing what he’s looking for in the first place. When this meek, oddball creature finds himself victimized by a phone-sex sting that first extorts money from his credit card, then dispatches a trio of goons to beat him up and wreck his life, Barry finally turns violent in a series of dopey explosions that are supposed to make you cheer. But in the director’s typical fashion, more time is spent on the way he stocks up on instant pudding to take advantage of a special offer for frequent-flyer miles. Out of nowhere, a pretty but equally weird girlfriend materializes in the form of Emily Watson, and there’s a side trip to Hawaii. Everything is intercut with the kind of color bars TV networks use for test patterns. None of this makes any sense. Nor, I presume, is it supposed to. The film exists primarily to show off the director’s technical wizardry, and the freaky charm of a boring comedian whose perverse popularity eludes me completely.

Adam Sandler’s blank stares and self-aware detachment lack the engagement, warmth and innocence in the face of dissolution that the role requires. A certain ennui sets in fast-partly a result of the contrived and unfunny material, partly a result of Mr. Sandler’s monotonous voice, which sounds like the dead dial tone you get when you try to phone Afghanistan. Mr. Anderson says he wrote this film specifically for the star because he’s such a big fan. How odd that a tribute to a wildly theatrical presence should turn out so dull and prosaic. When I came out of the screening of Punch-Drunk Love at the Toronto Film Festival, a small group of critics stood around scratching their heads. One dismissed the film as “moronic kid’s stuff.” Another defended it in a broader context because “it respects the obligation to fill every inch of the screen from wall to wall.” Uh, yeah. But it depends on what you fill it with .

Moore Says: Guns-Bad!

In the disappointingly uneven documentary Bowling for Columbine , rabbity rabble-rouser Michael ( Roger & Me ) Moore, looking more like Yosemite Sam than ever, is up to his whiskers again in knee-jerk liberalism, examining America’s neurotic obsession with firearms. His targets are easy, and he plays them too often for laughs. As Mr. Moore moves from a propaganda film for the National Rifle Association to a bank that offers a free gun with each new account, the irony is instant. With 500 guns in the bank’s vaults, for instance, Mr. Moore’s first question to the bewildered bank executive is: “Don’t you think it’s a little dangerous hanging out with guns in a bank?” There’s more where that came from.

Challenging the grass-roots philosophy that anyone without a gun is a derelict American, all Mr. Moore has to do is roam around his native state of Michigan (also home to Charlton Heston and, at times, Timothy McVeigh) to find children raised on the bang-bang of a TV set and women who pack guns in their panty hose. He moves on, to a town in Utah where every member of the community board is required by law to carry a loaded gun. In Colorado, he extracts devastating surveillance-camera footage of the shootings, violence and panic from the April 20, 1999, massacre at Columbine High School, pointing out that all of the weapons that killed the students, teachers and finally the suicidal mini-marauders themselves were purchased at the local Kmart. Then it’s on to Canada, a peaceful world one hour away by plane from the site of the former World Trade Center, where the crime rate is surprisingly low (America’s gun-related deaths outnumber Canada’s by an astounding 11,000 to 165 per year), there’s a great system of education, culture and health care, nobody locks their doors, and everybody thinks Americans are screwballs. From sharks to anthrax to diet warnings and food scares, America, according to Moore, is afraid of everything-and the frenzied media is always on the case, fueling the paranoia. I’m not sure what this has to do with the subject of gun control, but after all the miles, interviews, statistics and research, Moore arrives at one conclusion: America is fucked!

Tackling myriad subjects simultaneously, the film is like exploding buckshot. Hypocrisy in the American military is a foregone conclusion; the drumbeat of terror instilled by the media, as annoying as it is strident, keeps the gun industry profitable. We know that already. So what is the point of this movie? Guns are bad? We know that, too. Mr. Moore aims at so many targets and tilts at so many windmills that his arguments lose persuasion. He tells us that on the day of the Columbine shootings, the U.S. dropped more bombs in Kosovo than any other single day of bombing in history. I’m not sure I get the connection. The polemic widens. The U.S., he says, trained Osama bin Laden to kill the Soviets, and the U.S. helped to enable Saddam Hussein’s reign of terror and now wants to kill him-never mind the fact that the U.S. has already killed hundreds of thousands of innocent children in Iraq, as well as Chile, Colombia and Southeast Asia. As the irrelevant facts multiply, the focus jumps all over the map and the point of the movie blurs. Any movie in which freaked-out rock singer Marilyn Manson makes more practical sense than everyone else has obviously been tweaked in the editing room, while poor old frazzled Charlton Heston comes off looking senile. I never thought I’d live to see the day when I found myself siding with Moses, but Mr. Moore uses gonzo tactics to lie his way into the gates of Mr. Heston’s home, refuses to vacate the premises, then corners and bullies his subject into submission through the same fear he accuses him of instilling in others. I’m an advocate for gun control, but I found myself disappointed that Mr. Heston didn’t pull out a loaded gun and say, “Now you know why I consider it a Constitutional right to protect my own property.” In any case, Mr. Heston’s scattered, bumbling confusion makes Mr. Moore’s relentless insults doubly irritating, now that we know the right-wing gun lobbyist was already suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s at the time of the inquisition.

Acting like a pit bull, Mr. Moore makes you raise an eyebrow about his own liberal manifesto. (He’s a member of the National Rifle Association himself, just like Mr. Heston.) Sorting through the ideological debris, you realize that Mr. Moore’s case for disarming America has too much anger and not enough insight, and you begin to question his motives. A grand act of patriotic idealism begins to smell like a craving for controversial self-promotion thinly masked as crusading journalism. In Bowling for Columbine , Mr. Moore’s famous sense of humor is dragging. He’s just mad at everybody.

The Cabaret Cure

What with the threat of war, the erosion of consumer confidence that is bankrupting us all, and the fate of Martha Stewart, nothing distracts like music. At the Algonquin’s fabled Oak Room, I heartily invite you to check out Made for the Movies , a Hollywood songbook of the wonderful take-home tunes that quickened the pulse of moviegoers in the golden age of cinema. This is the critically acclaimed revue that was cut short a year ago by the events of 9/11. Happily, its spirit-lifting vigor and savvy are just as exhilarating the second time around. The polished cast-pianist-singer Eric Comstock, accomplished jazz pianist-vocalist Dena DeRose, and jovial blues and jazz stylist Bill Henderson-is both diverse and homogenous. Everyone gets a chance to shine in duets, solos and three-part harmonies. The three all-time-great title themes from the MGM music department- “Invitation” and “Green Dolphin Street,” both by the genius Bronislau Kaper, and “The Bad and the Beautiful,” by David Raksin-are showcased brilliantly in a variety of moods and tempos. Ms. DeRose’s lightly sugared “Lover” and Mr. Henderson’s raspy, loping and lazily amusing rendition of Johnny Mercer’s “I’m an Old Cowhand” are the highlights in an eclectic collection that includes songs by Burton Lane, Frank Loesser, Rodgers & Hart, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mandel and Hoagy Carmichael. Mr. Henderson stops the show with a slow, sliding arrangement of “Hooray for Hollywood” that was copied almost bar for bar from Doris Day’s famous recording of the same song. The three-part a capella barbershop harmony on “You’ll Never Know” would make Alice Faye smile. Ms. DeRose demonstrates her jazz fluidity on a cool and mellow interpretation of Dorothy Parker’s haunting lyrics to “I Wished on the Moon,” and Mr. Comstock belies his early training as a saloon performer with a hip, daring and vocally decisive approach to “Laura” that catapults him from promising boy singer to confident and dynamic male crooner. The cabaret doctors will cure what ails you, through Oct. 19, and you don’t even need a prescription. All you have to bring is some sophistication; Comstock, DeRose and Henderson will do the rest.

Upcoming Tributes

Two memorial services you should know about: The life and songs of Roy Kral, the innovative jazz pianist and one half of the legendary husband-and-wife vocal team of Jackie & Roy, will be celebrated at St. Peter’s Church in the Citicorp Building on Oct. 10 at 7 p.m. The all-star lineup of performers includes George Shearing, Mark Murphy, Helen Merrill, Bill Charlap, Marian McPartland and Phil Woods.

Oscar-winners Kim Hunter and Rod Steiger will both be honored in a dual tribute on Oct. 11 at 2 p.m. at the Actors Studio on West 44th Street. The partial list of luminaries scheduled to share stories and reminiscences of these two theatrical giants and re-create scenes from famous plays already forms a Who’s Who in American film, theater and television. Ms. Hunter lived above the Cherry Lane Theatre on Commerce Street in Greenwich Village, which will open its doors on Monday, Oct. 14, at 6 p.m. for another memorial celebration of her career. These events are open to the public, but seating is limited, so plan ahead.