Surprise! Adam Sandler can act.

Comedian moves to a new level with 'Punch-Drunk Love.' But Madonna strikes out ... again.

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

Adam Sandler is a comedian with a taste for low-brow shenanigans. Madonna is a singer, dancer, fashion plate, and occasional film actress. What they have in common – along with dozens of other entertainers – is a desire to stretch their talents and raise their images to a higher notch on the cultural scale.

That's why we get movies like "Punch-Drunk Love" and "Swept Away," projects with a tad more class than pictures like "Mr. Deeds" and "Dick Tracy" can provide. The films are miles apart in quality and appeal, but both are interesting examples of what big stars feel they ought to do nowadays if they want to become bigger stars.

Although plenty of Sandler fans will line up this weekend for Punch-Drunk Love, it's more accurately described as a Paul Thomas Anderson film. He's the auteur of "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia," two of the most ambitious indies in memory, and his new opus arrives in theaters after showings at the Cannes, Toronto, and New York film festivals. Anderson admirers were surprised to hear he'd put a laugh-monger like Sandler at the heart of the picture, and Sandler seemed equally surprised to find himself waving at well-dressed audiences in auditoriums usually reserved for art films.

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He plays a small-time businessman whose idea of a meaningful project in life is to buy up vast amounts of a certain supermarket pudding so he can earn zillions of frequent-flier miles. The story presents him with four problems to solve. One is figuring out how to have a reasonably happy life when he knows he's nerdy and whiny to his bones. Another is coping with his family, which includes no fewer than seven nagging sisters. The third is escaping a con artist who's determined to fleece him. The fourth is wooing a new acquaintance (Emily Watson) whom he falls for because she's as kooky as he is.

"Punch-Drunk Love" is Anderson's most modestly produced movie since the underrated "Hard Eight," but it has enough unconventional touches – quirky camera angles, offbeat music, swaths of color running across the screen – to distinguish it from standard Hollywood fare.

This aside, its best creative coup is Sandler's presence in the leading role. Anderson has detected qualities below the surface of his usual screen persona – a wounded insecurity, a sense of repression that's almost violent – that no director has called upon before, and they're exactly right for this peculiar little gem of a movie.

I doubt it will propel Sandler's career in lasting new directions, and I'm sure its unabashed weirdness will prevent it from finding a large audience. But it's one of the most inventive offerings so far this season.

Swept Away is a remake of "Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny on the Blue Sea of August," the Italian comedy by Lina Wertmuller that won star Giancarlo Giannini an Oscar nomination in 1974. In the new version, his son Adriano Giannini makes his English-language acting debut in the same role – an impudent working-class fisherman who gets stranded on an uninhabited island with the rich, obnoxious woman he works for.

The junior Giannini, who has inherited Giancarlo's handsome looks, portrays his mercurial character with energy and flair.

Madonna doesn't. Indeed, it's hard to remember the last time a certified celebrity gave a performance so monotonous, unimaginative, and all-around tiresome to watch. Apparently aware of this problem, director Guy Ritchie tries to liven things up by tossing an utterly unmotivated music-video sequence into the middle of the picture. This only adds ballast to an irretrievably sinking ship.

Sweep this waterlogged "Swept Away" under the rug!

• Both movies, rated R, contain elements of sex and violence.

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