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PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE ****

By GUY FLATLEY


CAST: Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Luis Guzman, Mary Lynn Rajskub

WRITER/DIRECTOR: Paul Thomas Anderson

A sexually adventurous, career-obsessed, thirtysomething American male he's not. In truth, Barry, who peddles bathroom appliances in a surreal warehouse, is probably the oldest virgin in all of San Fernando Valley. When any one of his seven sisters tries to bully him into hooking up with some nice girl, his response is apt to be polite but evasive. Except on those occasions when, from out of nowhere, he explodes with fury and shatters a sister's glass door or rips apart the men's room in a friendly neighborhood restaurant.

Timid, violent, secretive, decent and demented, Barry--acted with depth and stunning range by Adam Sandler--has the soul of a saint, but when it comes to passing for a functioning member of society, he is the misfit's misfit. Even he knows that, so he finally decides to take a tentative step toward social maturity. Here's what he does: One night, paging through a newspaper in his sterile bachelor pad, he happens upon an ad for phone sex, places a call, listens to the graphic instructions being cooed by a woman on the other end, and slowly--very slowly--gets the hang of what he's supposed to be doing on his end. But not before giving his credit card number and other pieces of crucial information to his newfound friend. Imagine the anticlimax on the following morning when the lady of the night calls and hits him up for a loan.

Barry refuses to be ripped off, however, and his rage builds with each new call from the no-longer-cooing con artist. Still, when her thuggish pals show up in person to apply pressure on Barry, he seems scarcely to notice. That's because a miracle has taken place. Barry has fallen in love with Lena, a loopy, delicately aggressive, extremely sexy Brit--introduced to him, you'll not be surprised to hear, by his pushiest sister. But when the goons eventually try to get tough with Lena (Emily Watson, at her most enchanting), we see a brand-new, very, very scary Barry.

Sound absurd? It is. But coming, as it does, from Paul Thomas Anderson, the idiosyncratic, wildly innovative director of "Hard Eight," "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia," it is also audacious, poignant, gross, mysterious and laugh-out-loud funny. I'm happy to say that "Punch-Drunk Love" is to the average Hollywood movie what Barry and Lena are to the people next door.