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Punch-Drunk Love finds the auteur of Southern California discontent scaling down the sprawling canvas that he painted with Boogie Nights and stretched almost past patience with Magnolia. Paul Thomas Anderson’s intimate but emotionally distanced little film—the beneficiary of stunt casting and even stuntier photography—is constructed with such meticulous deliberation that its style, its mastery of the methods of romantic storytelling to no discernible point, becomes the point.

Notoriously, Adam Sandler plays the lead, one Barry Egan, a solitary, shambling salesman of novelty plumbing supplies. Anderson matches the film to the ebb and flow of the character’s mental tides. Most of the time, Barry is almost affectless, tormented by the blunt hazings of his seven nosy, noisy sisters and by his own impotence in the face of a world he treads upon too lightly. He’s up and at the company warehouse at dawn, sequestered in a hellishly overlit office by day, alone at night in his shabby San Fernando Valley apartment. Barry is also prone to explosive acts of violence, to which Sandler’s self-immolating form of comedy is peculiarly suited. So the film is punctuated by savage shocks, such as a truck careening out of control on a quiet predawn back street, seemingly invoked by the act of Barry’s witnessing.

Punch-Drunk Love is one willfully bizarre episode after another, some of which pay off while others just hang there. Barry rescues and repairs a damaged harmonium. He meets a nice woman (Emily Watson) trying to drop off her car at the mechanic’s next door. He calls a phone-sex line. He decides that if he accumulates enough coupons from a supermarket product, he’s in for more than a million frequent-flyer miles, even though he has nowhere to go. (This last is the true story that inspired the script, so the film’s frequent repetition of the word “pudding” is actually a nod to reality. Of course, pudding’s always funny.) Anderson either can’t or won’t make the episodes cohere, so the disproportion of the phone-sex call’s turning into an arch and amusing subplot glares jarringly against the goes-nowhere rescue of the instrument.

Barry’s earthbound existence is one of fuzziness and discord, with a soundtrack of percussive hissings and whistles, and lighting alternately too harsh and too dim. During Sandler’s magnificent negotiation of the phone-sex call, in which Barry’s eagerness to please leads him to lie throughout the conversation, the camera refuses to stay in focus—Barry even bores his documenters. But if the stilted conversations and absurd happenings threaten to turn Punch-Drunk Love into a technical exercise for a director between major works, Anderson does have an agenda: He wants to put an old-fashioned musical comedy into the hands of this spazzy character and his demure lady, and when a love affair between Barry and Lena, the nice woman with the car, bursts into bloom, so does the film.

The center section is a de- and reconstruction of the musical—which Anderson hints at as Barry and his supervisor (the always great Luis Guzman) shop for the pudding that will spirit Barry away from his earthly stasis: Barry breaks into a hopeful little shuffle, dancing down the supermarket aisles like Fred Astaire’s two-left-footed brother. Soon, he’s landing in Hawaii on impulse, tracking Lena down (at a street-corner pay phone amid a spectacular Chinese New Year parade, because a romantic-comedy hero must have music wherever he goes) and meeting her in a set piece of surpassing beauty: the lovers standing still, in profile amid the silhouetted shapes of bustling passers-by, framed in a spectacular sunset. Watson even wears the sweater-and-skirt sets of an outer-office Kim Novak; she’s blond and malleable and utterly unknowable, and her attachment to the geeky Barry is compellingly mysterious.

Back on earth, Barry is victimized by the scheming vixen he phoned during earlier, lonelier times. And Philip Seymour Hoffman, in an easy turn for him, plays a sweaty con artist whose idea of a good scam is to hit up lonely mugs for extra cash. This subplot looks like a poor Xerox of the Coen brothers, especially when four blond Mormon brothers—parallels to the dark sisters?—descend on the hapless Barry. But Anderson’s uses of male aggression have never been this liberating: Barry comes alive when he channels his violence into romantic expression, and the neat visual schematics of his isolation shift when he falls in love, from the straight lines and low ceilings of emotional oppression to a circumscribed world in which everything has fallen into place.

Michael Moore gives liberal muckraking a bad name. There’s nothing more infuriating than watching his deck-stacked documentaries, featuring the pugnacious, portly activist himself, talking to the most certifiable of right-wing crazies and PR lackeys in moral denial while his camerawork manipulates the audience’s reactions with ironic insert shots and sly editing. The first 15 minutes of Bowling for Columbine will make centrists see red, but the film’s subject is too enormous for even Moore to cheapen, and he soon sweeps you up on a tide of grief and outrage. Even if you despise Moore’s tendentious reasoning and shifty analogies, his new documentary is as thought-provoking as it is descriptive of a tragic stasis.

Moore, former junior marksman champ and current dues-paying member of the NRA, sets out to explore the prevalence of gun violence in American culture. His explanation, finally, is twofold: that institutional belligerence and the selfishness of our government policies breed a kind of bone-deep affinity for violent reaction among citizens, and, interestingly, that ours is a society less aggressive than fearful. (There’s something in between he doesn’t get to, something about a culture without a sense of social shame or self-responsibility, that’s almost impossible for someone with Moore’s mind-set to talk about.) To the end of proving these two points, Moore and his equipment-toting assistant—whose camera sways as if it were in a hammock—travel far and wide, the narrator indulging in some of his trademark audacious tricks and sometimes finding himself helpless during a particularly unexpected interview.

The usual batshit subjects do their circus tricks for the lefties’ amusement—Oklahoma City bombing suspect Terry Nichols and a preening oaf of a reporter reporting live from the shooting at Columbine High School among them. He also talks to ideological colleagues, including an academic who takes Moore on a stroll of South Central L.A.’s sunny residential streets to challenge the media’s panicky, inaccurate use of the geographical term. But even here, Moore cheats: A backstage conversation with a mostly thoughtful, intelligent Marilyn Manson, the cultural right’s most prominent straw man in the aftermath of the Columbine killings, ends with Manson excoriating the culture of fear as an effort to keep Americans consuming. If the rock star’s views were not so simpatico with Moore’s own, the director would surely have cut to a mocking pan of the goth tchotchkes for sale at the show.

The best sequence takes place in Canada, where Moore expects to find a dearth of guns to match the relative dearth of national gun deaths. Instead, he finds 7 million weapons on the loose per 10 million households and a bustling big city (Toronto) in which people don’t lock their doors. (Moore tests this claim in an audacious sequence in which he walks right into strangers’ houses.) Bowling for Columbine is often staggeringly funny, especially during a tour de force of implied connection between the media’s racist scaremongering about crime and the hyped alarm over “Africanized” killer bees.

It’s also the most violent film of this year or any other. Prepare to watch people get shot, in a shocking montage. Prepare also to witness the security-camera video from inside Columbine High during the massacre—you will not sleep well. And even if you don’t agree with Moore’s placing the blame on a government that bombs Sudanese aspirin factories and lets half a million Iraqi children perish under dubious sanctions, you won’t be able to look away. Bowling for Columbine is as fascinating, appalling, and dismaying as the subject it probes. CP