Punch-Drunk Love (Anderson, 2002) — 10 Years Later

When one thinks of Paul Thomas Anderson, one normally doesn’t think of romantic comedy. He seems drawn to sprawling fables, whether it’s the rise and fall of porn actors in Boogie Nights or the relationship between capitalism and religion in There Will Be Blood, and there is usually little humor to be found. Perhaps this is why many people seem to forget he directed Punch-Drunk Love in 2002, a film sprung out of a desire to work with Adam Sandler and to create something that was a mere 90 minutes.

The plot follows Barry Egan (Sandler), a reclusive businessman with anger issues who lives under the shadow of his seven overbearing sisters and who struggles to maintain a relationship with a family friend, Lena (Emily Watson). Anderson earned the prize for Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival in 2002, and Sandler was lauded by critics for playing against type. Unfortunately, it failed to make back its $25 million budget at the box-office, perhaps because it wasn’t Sandler’s usual mainstream fare (Mr. Deeds had performed well just a few months prior). Though it was well-received by critics, it was generally viewed as a minor film by Anderson, and I know few people who consider it among his best work. Even so, it’s gathered a small but devoted following who argue that this was when Anderson first began to show signs of his own unique style rather than simply borrowing elements of that of others.

What I Thought Then

I can’t remember when I first saw Punch-Drunk Love, or even if I saw it before or after my first exposure to Anderson’s filmography (Magnolia, which some days I consider my favorite film). I know only that my first viewing was on DVD at some point around 2003 and that I promptly forgot most of the experience. If you had asked me a week ago what I thought of Anderson’s shortest and arguably most divisive film, I probably would have said something about Adam Sandler’s acting and left it at that. Indeed, his performance was the one thing uniting the three moments I could vaguely recall: a shot in which Barry destroys a bathroom, a scene in which he calls a phone sex hotline, and a climactic moment involving an angry Philip Seymour Hoffman. Oh, and there was something about a piano and pudding.

Clearly, the film failed to make much of an impression on my first viewing. But with The Master on the horizon and as someone who remains wildly impressed by all of Anderson’s other work, I felt it was time for a revisit. After all, I first saw it before I began studying or writing about movies in any sort of “serious” or professional manner. Perhaps an additional ten years of learning would cause me to re-evaluate the film.

What I Think Now

As it turns out, 10 years is enough to help me better grasp many of Anderson’s aesthetic techniques and intentions, but an improved understanding of the film on an intellectual level isn’t enough to satisfy on an emotional one. It can’t be denied that this is Anderson’s most abstract film, relying heavily on expressionistic mise en scene and occasionally dipping into surrealism in its exploration of an unstable loner’s journey to find connection. Perhaps this is why many critics heaped praise on it upon its initial release, with some even declaring that Punch-Drunk Love marked Anderson’s transformation from ambitious young filmmaker into full-fledged auteur. It strikes me as a movie for film buffs and academics rather than mainstream audiences, as most of its pleasures (in my opinion) come from scrutinizing the color palette and choice of framing, or trying to figure out what long-dead filmmaker Anderson is channeling in each scene. This has already been explored at great length by others much smarter than me, so I won’t elaborate much further, suffice to offer that perhaps this is why most “ordinary” (that is to say, non-critic) filmgoers I know who have bothered to see the film don’t really care for it.

And why should they? For all its intriguing symbols and stylistic devices – a harmonium that launches Barry towards actual inner harmony, a score by Jon Brion that synchronizes with the film’s action as an sign of his love – the movie has no realistic characters or relationships. Barry is so anti-social and reclusive that he comes across as borderline autistic, and in serious need of professional help (a fact that he himself seems to recognize). His sisters are so casually cruel that they’re little more than caricatures – We get it, he’s emasculated! What does Lena see in him? Even after learning of his violent tendencies (“I beat up the bathroom”) she remains completely infatuated and willing to forgive every lie or social mishap. Perhaps this is Anderson’s way of critiquing the dominant arc of most modern romantic comedies, in which the hapless loser miraculously wins the heart of his dream girl, but subversion does not always equal brilliance.

The film seems in many ways to be a reaction to Magnolia, which combined the Altman-esque scope of Boogie Nights with an unbelievable (some would say unbearable) amount of emotion and pathos. If that film had too much heart, this one has too little, and no amount of technical whimsy can make up for it.

The Verdict

All of this isn’t to say Punch-Drunk Love is a bad film. Though it never fully meshed for me as a whole, I found myself captivated by individual moments and scenes. One particularly tense sequence overlaps sound, music, plotlines and editing in what fellow critic Corey Atad described to me as a “claustrophobia of sound” that allows the audience to feel Barry’s rising level of stress and potential for outburst. It’s the closest the film came to eliciting a genuine emotional response out of me. Though it remains Anderson’s weakest film, in my opinion, this is the one in which he most uses all the tools of cinema to convey what his protagonist is going through. This undoubtedly contributes to Sandler’s performance, which turns his usual man-child tropes on their head. At the end of the day, despite its flaws, Punch-Drunk Love is still better than most mainstream fare. Plus, its relative lack of dialogue arguably paved the way for There Will Be Blood, arguably Anderson’s most mature and accomplished work to date.

 Andrew Johnson is a freelance journalist and founder of Film Geek Radio.

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