The other day I asked a friend if he had seen Punch-Drunk Love. “Is that the one with Adam Sandler?” he replied. This seems to be how most people recall Paul Thomas Anderson’s fourth feature film, an underrated gem that doesn’t get a fraction of the credit it deserves.
Coming off the sprawling epics Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999), both of which earned Anderson Oscar nominations for Best Original Screenplay, the director subverted expectations by stating that his next project would be a ninety-minute Adam Sandler comedy. In fact, when he first announced the news during a press conference at the Cannes Film Festival, it was met with laughter. But Anderson wasn’t joking. When it finally premiered at Cannes in 2002, Punch-Drunk Love won Anderson the Best Director award and was nominated for the festival’s highest prize, the Palme d’Or. Sandler’s performance, meanwhile, garnered him his first and only Golden Globe nomination, for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy Film.
Punch-Drunk Love is an ode to the euphoria of new love told through a disorientating prism; a romantic comedy on the verge of chaos. Sandler plays Barry Egan, a cripplingly neurotic, socially awkward toilet plunger salesman who puts up a benign façade but erupts into violent outbursts whenever he’s frustrated. The first time we see Barry lose his temper is at a birthday party attended by his seven incredibly domineering sisters. The women—played by one actor (Mary Lynn Rajskub) and six non-professionals—waste no time in mocking Barry by reminding him of painful childhood memories. Barry exits the frame for a few seconds before suddenly reappearing and smashing his sister Rhonda’s sliding glass doors. In the very next scene, Barry is talking to his brother-in-law Walter. “I don’t like myself sometimes,” he says. “Can you help me?” “Barry,” Walter tells him, “I’m a dentist. What kind of help do you think I can give you?”
Barry is a man who doesn’t understand himself or others. He seems always on edge, insecure, trying desperately to navigate a world filled with challenges. Then one day, Barry’s lonely existence is shattered when sweet, saucer-eyed Lena (the delightful Emily Watson) walks into his life. The two seem to be kindred spirits; both introverted, both social outliers. However, their budding relationship is jeopardised when Barry becomes embroiled in a phone sex extortion racket masterminded by the unsavoury Mattress Man (Philip Seymour Hoffman in a memorable supporting role). There’s also a sub-plot that involves Barry accumulating millions of frequent flier miles by exploiting a loophole in a Healthy Choice pudding promotion. Don’t ask.
Even the producer of Punch-Drunk Love, JoAnne Sellar, has confessed that she was unsure about casting Sandler as the film’s lead. However, under Anderson’s expert guidance, the Happy Gilmore actor shows hitherto unseen dramatic depths in the role of Barry Egan. He’s still the same love-starved man-child we’ve seen countless times before and since. Except here, Sandler channels the latent aggression veiled as humour in most of his comedies into something much more refined. Barry is the dark core merely hinted at in Sandler’s other characters. Take, for instance, the scene where Barry smashes his sister’s doors. In another Sandler vehicle helmed by a less competent director, this violent outburst would take centre stage and almost certainly be played for laughs. But then this is no ordinary Adam Sandler film.
Barry’s relationship with Lena is fantastically strange, the latter’s understated oddness a perfect foil to the former’s bipolarity. When Barry demolishes a bathroom, causing the pair to be expelled from the restaurant where they were having their first date, Lena is only more enamoured of him. Later, while lying on a hotel bed together, Barry and Lena whisper sweet nothings of abuse to each other (“I want to chew your face and I want to scoop out your eyes and I want to eat them”). The mix between tenderness and insanity is always perfectly judged.
Anderson also does a brilliant job of constructing scenes around Barry’s anxiety. We experience the world not as it really is, but how Barry experiences it; lorries roar past windows, and the outside world is always flooded with blinding light. Fundamental to this effect is Jon Brion’s score, which mirrors Barry’s inner state. Oppressive pulses, buzzes and clicks—sometimes rising to a level that intentionally competes with the dialogue—pull us into his excruciating unease. However, when Barry and Lena share their first kiss, this angular dissonance gives way to the swooning orchestration of classic Hollywood. The soundtrack’s centrepiece is Shelly Duvall’s rendition of the Harry Nilsson song ‘He Needs Me,’ taken from the film Popeye. Only in Paul Thomas Anderson’s universe could such an ostensibly bizarre inclusion work so effectively.
There are so many other things that are great about this film; Anderson’s use of colour, including the blue lens flare, the harmonium, and the real-life story of David Phillips (also known as Pudding Man) which inspired Barry’s subplot. But above all, Punch-Drunk Love is a meticulously crafted and wonderfully unique paean to the healing power of love. Though he may be damaged, Barry is not condemned to sadness. “I have so much strength in me you have no idea,” he tells the Mattress Man, having successfully confronted every test of his courage. “I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine.”
Words by Tom Vegeris
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