Paul Thomas Anderson directs Adam Sandler, Emily Watson and Philip Seymour Hoffman in this romantic comedy between a lonely man with anger issues and an eye for the loophole in a deal, and the woman who may be stalking him.
Most cineastes approach Punch-Drunk Love as a Paul Thomas Anderson project. After making critically lauded ensemble pieces that impressed with their prestigious casts, scope, emotional intelligence and technical mastery he decided to change gears and make a minor romance movie starring the least respected comedy star on the A-List. From Jerry Lewis to Bill Murray, auteurs normally wait until big name clowns reach late middle age and are well past their box office hay day before they begin casting them in their artier projects. Yet Punch-Drunk Love was made at the height of Sandler’s youthful box office ascendancy, at a point when he seemed to represent everything lunk headed and unsophisticated about general multiplex going tastes. You’d struggle to find a critic who appreciated his mode of cinema in 2002. I’m sure most contemporary write ups of this great movie were written through the snide filter of a tyro director utilising one of Hollywood rawer and less refined resources. Slumming it. A quirk. A prank. An ironic self imposed obstruction.
And I call bullshit on that… As someone who enjoyed Sandler ever since Airheads, and concedes he has tasteless duds like Billy Madison and The Waterboy for every comedy success, Punch-Drunk Love plays out a lot more like an Adam Sandler release than it does a PTA work of art. Sandler plays a henpecked, overwhelmed man child barely in control of his emotions and hostility. A veil of forced politeness smothers a bubbling volcano of justified fury in every interaction. The film is at its best when you can see all of his Barry Egan’s button getting pressed and the irritation of other humans not playing by the rules just rip off his mask, a hundred little consecutive unthinking pulls a minute. As with all good Sandler stories he eventually beats the system, gets the dream girl and puts the bullies in their place. It has a cast of quirky comedy insiders and indie darlings; Hoffman, Luis Guzmán, Mary Lynn Rajskub or Robert Smigel wouldn’t seem out of place in the regular ensemble of any Adam Sandler vehicle. The movie has the pleasingly garish colour scheme of a kid’s telly show or a Nineties toy shop aisle. The soundtrack repurposes forgotten songs from the Eighties (OK… I’ll confess…that’s a stretch as Altman, Nilsson and Shelley Duvall’s He Needs Me from the Popeye soundtrack isn’t exactly a dated banger from The Police or Thompson Twins). Sandler even spends a portion of the shoot at a holiday resort and fans know if he can crowbar a tropical beano into the middle act for his family and friends, he’ll definitely pick that script over countless other. The only way this is a departure from the usual Sandler template is that he never looks at camera, a self aware nod lifted from Eddie Murphy, when plot developments break even the broadest borders of incredulity. That, and Rob Schneider doesn’t cameo. The sincerity and magical realism and near psychotic slapstick rages that define a Sandler hit are all here. Present and correct! In 50 years time will people studying his surviving films even see this as such a huge departure or a risk?
Sure… Paul Thomas Anderson plays around with the mix a little, I personally think the director is at his best observing a closed-in anti-romance like here or Phantom Thread. The unresolved mysteries of the harmonium, Barry’s underused ability to fly and the hypercolour sugar sweet moments of narrative blackout all feel like they belong in a Coen Brothers movie or a Paul Auster novel. But if they did happen in a Dennis Dugan or Frank Coraci directed comedy you wouldn’t blink or ask to speak to the manager.
There’s a lot of looseness and openness that makes Punch-Drunk Love fascinating. Emily Watson’s Lena Leonard is an obtuse and mysterious fantasy woman. She shows flashes where she is just as fucked up and touched as Sandler’s Barry. You can imagine an entire parallel film where her whole unseen side of the romance could produce similar moments of primary colour tension, mania and overwhelming idiosyncrasy. Then there are motifs that become more apparent on repeated viewings. Why does so much of the narrative take place in liminal spaces? Alleyways, hallways, lobbies, airport walkways. Why are these characters trapped in spatial limbo, restless without destination? Is that why Barry explodes in toilets, phone boxes, kitchens and warehouses? Is he most dangerous when cornered, always needing an entrance and an exit to keep moving? Does he have to see the loophole? And what’s with all the subtle references to Superman?!
This stood as Sandler’s finest work until the recent, but equally frazzled and beautiful, Uncut Gems. He has so many great films in his back catalogue now ranging from the popular rom coms to SFX blockbusters to the genuinely experimental. Isn’t it time people started to talking about Brooklyn’s most successful funny man in the same conversations as Keaton, Sellers, Martin and Carrey? Or are the snooty middle classes thrown that he still sees the value in a Hubie Halloween or a Murder Mystery when people just wanna have Friday night pleasures? Because I can tell you no matter how put upon and soul destroyed he is here, or violent or deranged his reaction proves, we as an audience member are completely on his side and within his mindset. Every step of the way. Not many actors have achieved that through an entire movie.
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