As a long-time Adam Sandler fan, one of the things that amazed me the most about Punch-Drunk Love (other than how often I feel like slightly less neurotic Barry Egan) was the fact that Barry has so much in common with the crazies Sandler has played in his other films, especially Happy Gilmore and The Waterboy. But P.T. Anderson took these stock characters and reversed their common traits, thereby creating a film and a character of uncommon beauty.
Almost every classic Sandler character (before his films devolved into unfunny cameo-fests) is an immature man-child with a hair-trigger temper who also has an inexplicable heart of gold. Happy Gilmore threatens Shooter McGavin with a broken bottle and beats the crap out of Bob Barker, yet the reason he joined the pro golf tour was to save his grandmother's house and make sure she didn’t end up in a nursing home. The Waterboy tears up opposing football players with crushing tackles, but also loves his mother and teaches his teammates how to become winners. Billy Madison takes delight in pounding third graders in a game of dodgeball, but also defends young Ernie from his taunting classmates. All these characters also win the heart of an understanding blonde woman with the initials V.V. (but in Punch-Drunk Love it's L.L.)
What P.T. Anderson did was have Sandler play the regular character traits, but reversed, and gave him a more convincing backstory. Instead of being an aggressive man who's soft-hearted and kind on the inside, he's quiet and anxious almost to the point of being frightened, but with a hidden capacity for violence whenever he feels like life is too much for him to bear. Instead of being a loudmouth hedonist, Barry Egan seems to be more comfortable if he didn't have to deal with other people at all. Throughout his life Egan was berated and dominated by his many sisters, making him into a horribly repressed man. He has never let himself be free or ever gotten a chance to shine, unlike his character brethren did in school, golf, singing, football, or raising a child.
Adam Sandler gives a career-making (or possibly in his case, career-destroying) performance in the role. Everything he has done before now seems like practice for the role that was given to him in this film. The scene in Happy Gilmore where he tenderly kisses Victoria Vennet at the ice rink has the same feel as when he is lying in bed with Lana in Punch-Drunk Love. The same man who stands over a seemingly unconscious Bob Barker and yells, "The price is wrong, bitch!" also beats up four men with a crowbar in Love. Even the merry dance Egan does in the supermarket was telegraphed earlier in Billy Madison's joyous celebration of Nudie Magazine Day.
Most critics celebrated Sandler's performance in Punch-Drunk Love as the surprise revealing of a truly talented actor who had previously limited himself to the ghetto of juvenile comedies. Maybe if they had paid closer attention, they would have realized that actor had always been there, but only needed the right writer and the right kind of character to show what he truly had in him.
/me goes off to watch Billy Madison for the 100th time.