Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson.
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson.
Starring: Adam Sandler (Barry Egan), Emily Watson (Lena Leonard), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Dean Trumbell), Luis Guzmán (Lance), Mary Lynn Rajskub (Elizabeth), Lisa Spector (Susan), Nicole Gelbard (Nicole), Mia Weinberg (Gilda), Karen Hermelin (Anna), Robert Smigel (Walter the Dentist), David H. Stevens (David), Nathan Stevens (Nate), Jimmy Stevens (Jim).
I remember when I heard that Paul Thomas Anderson, who was my favorite young director at the time, was going to follow-up his twin masterpieces Boogie Nights and Magnolia with an Adam Sandler comedy, I was stunned. I was a young cinephile (some would say movie snob), who pretty much hated all of Sandler’s movies – finding an amusing moment here and there in Happy Gilmore and The Wedding Singer, but mainly thinking his films were awful. But in interviews, Anderson made it clear he was a Sandler fan – so, I was a little bit worried. Was Anderson really going to make a movie like The Waterboy. Why the hell would he want to do that.
I should have known better than to doubt Anderson. With Punch-Drunk Love he did something that at the time I would have thought impossible – and even 12 years later is something no other director has been able to do anywhere near as effectively as he did (some of this may well be because Sandler seems content with doing one lazy comedy after another, and only challenging himself once every five or six years or so). He has made a movie that took the typical Sandler protagonist – socially awkward, prone to fits of violent rage, and doesn’t see it as charming or funny like most Sandler movies do – but sees as dysfunctional. Sandler still falls in love in the movie – as he almost always did at the time – but this time it’s not with a woman who is a portrait of female perfection – but a woman who is at least a little fucked up as well (she isn’t given as much depth as Sandler – but enough to know something is not quite right there). He also structured the movie with a strange, almost dreamlike quality – with his bold use of color, and near constant use of Jon Brion’s ever strange music. Anderson did something I didn’t was possible – he made an Adam Sandler movie, that was still faithful to Sandler’s persona, and turned it into a masterpiece.
In the film, Sandler plays Barry Egan who works in an Industrial park in Los Angeles. He has his own business – selling novelty plungers, and other items – which is slowly building. He has also happened upon a loophole in a new corporate giveaway – one that will allow him to rake up tons of air miles, without spending all that much money. What it does require him to do though is buy a lot of pudding. Early in the film, we see him with his family – the lone boy in a family that has seven daughters –all of whom are loud, and domineering, and mock Barry mercilessly. He is desperately lonely, and awkward. He calls a phone sex line to have someone to talk to – and then discovers that they aren’t just satisfied with taking his money when he calls, but want to scam him out of much more.
There is also a romantic subplot – as he meets Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), a friend of one of his sisters, who finds Barry fascinating. Their relationship slowly builds, even though Barry’s awkwardness and violent tendencies (not towards her, his anger is direct inward until he snaps and destroys things). There is a scene late in the film between these two that is both touching, and creepy, as the pair talk about what they want to do to each other – which becomes a series of violent things about mashing each other faces.
From the opening scene in the movie, Anderson establishes a strange, dreamlike quality to the movie. In that first scene, a cab pulls up in front of Barry’s work, and without a world, drops off what looks to be a small piano (actually a harmonium) without a word. It’s just another of those things that happens – like the frogs in Magnolia. Anderson has several interludes throughout the movie – where strange, psychedelic colors take over the screen – that like the rest of the movie is alternately soothing, and somewhat creepy. The escalating, surreal confrontations between Barry and the phone sex operator – brilliantly played by Philip Seymour Hoffman – take on the tone of a nightmare.
Punch-Drunk Love is inarguably the strangest of Anderson’s films. It has a tone that veers between comedy, violence, romantic fever dreams, and a nightmare. It’s a film that could have gone horribly wrong – some think it did – but just like Magnolia, where a lesser director would have made a horrible movie, Anderson keeps it all under control. We go from scenes of Sandler doing a Chaplin-esque soft-shoe in a supermarket, to him violently beating the phone sex operator’s goons, to dreamy romance with Lena, and back again. It is a testament to Sandler that he saw this as an opportunity to do something different – and fully seized it, taking what could have been another of his lovable psychos, and making him more lonely, awkward, and somewhat pathetic. And Watson gives a great performance as Lena –a difficult thing to do, since the movie isn’t as interested in her as it in in Sandler. But she makes Lena more believably awkward, with only hints of darkness. Often you wonder why the women in Sandler films would fall for the psycho on the other side – but here, it makes sense.
The film is odd, but it is also endlessly watchable. I`ve seen it many times, and it never ceases to lull me under its spell. I do wonder what people who have never seen a Sandler film would make of it – you almost have to know his screen persona to know how great what Anderson, and Sandler himself, have done here. It is an odd film – but another great one from Anderson.