Original release: November 1st, doctor 2002
Running time: 95 minutes
Writer and director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Composer: Jon Brion
Cast: Adam Sandler, stuff Emily Watson, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Doing the press rounds following the release of his sprawling 3-hour ensemble epic Magnolia (1999), director Paul Thomas Anderson was asked what was next. He replied that his next feature would be 90 minutes and expressed a desire to work with Adam Sandler. Few took him seriously. Sandler, long critically derided for his crude comedy and angry man-child persona, appeared an unlikely partner for the then wunderkind director.
We meet Barry Egan (Sandler), early one morning outside of his modest warehouse in the San Fernando Valley. A relatively successful peddler of novelty toilet plungers and brother to seven viciously overbearing sisters, he’s about to have his life turned upside down. Barry’s not a happy individual; his comfort zone stretches from a small suburban apartment to a desk in a small office within his warehouse.
Under the alleged protection of confidentiality he confides his woes in the only doctor he knows – a brother-in-law dentist:
Things soon spiral out of control and events conspire to drag Barry from his comfort zone and force him into confrontation. A naïve call to a phone sex line for company leads to the operator attempting to blackmail him and sending out four blonde henchmen brothers to extract cash. At the same time Barry meets a woman, Lena Leonard (Emily Watson) – a charming friend of one of his sisters, who seems almost as lost as he is. After a few awkward meetings the two fall hard and fast for one another.
Barry exhibits a tendency to erupt in fits of destructive rage – a behavioural trait in common with previous Adam Sandler characters. During a family birthday scene early on he cracks after a stream of barbed jibes from his sisters and smashes the patio doors. Later, on a date with Lena, he destroys the restaurant bathroom after learning he’s again been badmouthed. It’s against this backdrop of rage that Anderson stages his love story.
Adam Sandler’s performance was the primary talking point upon release; it’s at once both astonishing and familiar. Written with Sandler in mind, Anderson’s casting proved to be a masterstroke. Esteemed critic Roger Ebert described Punch-Drunk Love as an “Adam Sandler film by Paul Thomas Anderson”. By this he means that both actor and director manage to maintain the fundamental qualities that make them such distinctive filmmakers. Anderson takes apart the stock angry man-child persona and then reconstructs it, leaving out the fevered juvenility. Barry Egan still speaks I Sandler’s stunted mumbled sentences and he possesses the same tortured aggressive physicality seen in the likes of The Waterboy (1998) and Happy Gilmore (1996), but he’s imbued with motivation, fear, desire and depth.
At its heart, Punch-Drunk Love is a traditional, old-fashioned romance, one that traces its roots back to the old Hollywood musicals. Some critics have labelled the romance between the two leads as implausible and unlikely. The unkindest have questioned why Watson’s character would go near Sandler’s. But to look at the central romance and comment only on a perceived inexplicability (when is love not inexplicable?) is to miss the point. The romantic drama is certainly cinematic, in the sense that it probably couldn’t exist outside of the film, but that’s not to say that it doesn’t hold some valuable truths.
The film is at its strongest when it brings these truths to the fore, when it highlights the transformative nature of a new love. We cheer as new feelings build from a trickle into a torrent that overwhelms our hero and allows him to overwhelm those who seek to put him down. (“I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine.”) There are moments of wild euphoria as Egan’s destructive anger is turned away from window panes and restaurant bathrooms and channelled almost positively. Anderson’s primary focus seems to be on the power of love as a redemptive force, note the way third-act Barry behaves towards his sister or his second violent encounter with the four blonde brothers. Egan could almost be read as a superhero should you feel so inclined, Lena taking the place of a radioactive spider.
Any comment on Punch-Drunk Love would feel incomplete without mention of the score. It’s not unusual to hear critics griping about a score that’s overly manipulative, that obtusely insists and instructs. Composer Jon Brion’s work here could be accused of such things were it not for the fact that it feels so firmly a part of the character of the film. Full of bold and oppressive percussion, it’s at times almost unbearable and at others firmly uplifting. Seldom has a score captured so perfectly, and matched so exquisitely the essence and psyche of a protagonist.
Punch-Drunk Love was to prove a turning point in Anderson’s career, marking a shift in gear from the massive ensembles of Boogie Nights and Magnolia. It’s easy to see in retrospect the tightening of focus, and the interest in character that allowed for the stark and staggering There Will Be Blood (2007) and the magnificently bewildering The Master (2012). Punch-Drunk Love has been noted as a minor work of a major talent, but to read it as such is to do it a disservice. It may not stretch its net as far or wide as the director’s other works, but it still plumbs the depths and emerges as a short, sweet and twisted tale of love and redemption.
Tom is a Cardiff University Philosophy graduate from sunny Manchester. He favours filmmakers with edge and ambition, ones unafraid to subvert and disturb the status quo. This means directors such as David Lynch, Paul Thomas Anderson, Stanley Kubrick, David Croenenberg and Terry Gilliam.
Usually found in front of a screen trying to catch up on an ever-expanding watch list he also occasionally finds time to write. He tweets once in a while too: @thomasgrieve .