Following “Boogie Nights,” Paul Thomas Anderson said he wanted to make a smaller, more intimate film that would only be about ninety minutes. Instead, he made “Magnolia,” a three hour long magnum opus about the mysteries of life. After that, the director became determined that his next movie really would be much shorter. “Punch-Drunk Love” would team Anderson, a critically adored auteur, with Adam Sandler, the face of lowbrow comedy junk. It probably seemed like one of those examples of a comedian appearing in a serious movie, in the hopes of winning some praise and awards. Yet there was something inspired about the pairing. “Punch-Drunk Love” would alienate Sandler's fanbase and wouldn't make much money. However, it would be result in another well received film, becoming an instant cult classic.
Barry Egan is a lonely man. The owner of a novelty plunger business, he projects a quiet and nervous demeanor. He has been relentlessly bullied his entire life by his seven older sisters, which might explain the fiery rage that sometimes boils inside him, usually leading to some property damage. One of those sisters sets Barry up on a date with her co-worker, Lena. He's reluctant at first but he immediately feels a bond with the quiet, understanding woman. Desperate for someone to talk to, he calls a phone sex line. That business is actually a blackmailing scheme, which soon targets Barry violently. Soon, his growing love with Lean is threatened.
“Punch-Drunk Love” is both a change of pace for P.T. Anderson and it also isn't. On one hand, the film is an effervescent romantic comedy. The film is committed to replicating the experience of falling in love, with all the rushing, uncertain, but swimming emotions that entails. The movie also displays a whimsical side, featuring surreal sights like a comical car crash resulting in a random harmonium being left on the street. This represents a change in tone. Yet “Punch-Drunk Love” is clearly connected to Anderson's body of work. This is another film about lonely people searching for love, acceptance, and understanding. The capricious touches just expands on the dreamlike aspects present in Anderson's other films. Novelty plungers aren't too far away from a rain of frogs, as far as everyday events go. So this is less like a director leaping to a different genre than it is a director putting his distinctive stamp on something outside his comfort zone.
someone living with anxiety. He's quiet, he mumbles. He's painfully shy and is socially awkward. When he says something weird or odd, especially in a personal social interaction, he gets angry at himself. One very astute scene has him walking away from his date with Lena, chastising himself for saying something stupid. When confronted, such as by his henpecking older sisters, he moves inward. Those bottled up emotions explode sometimes, resulting in intense violence or seemingly inexplicable crying. As someone who has lived with social anxiety his entire life, these touches strike me as incredibly accurate. Barry seems so uncomfortable that you wonder how he lives at all. Which is exactly what it's like.
“Punch-Drunk Love” is unlike any other film in Adam Sandler's nearly thirty year long career as a leading man. Yet certain patterns emerge. Sandler's earliest hits were films like “Billy Madison” and “Happy Gilmore.” In both, he played an overgrown man-child prone to fits of violent rage. Similar characters appear in “The Waterboy,” “Little Nicky,” “Anger Management,” and probably a dozen other films. “Punch-Drunk Love” couldn't be more different from these films in tone and execution. Yet Barry Egan roughly fits the same outlines as the typical Sandler-esque protagonist. By building a very different type of film around this familiar type of character, Anderson has exposed the sadness and loneliness at the heart of Adam Sandler's public persona. Sandler gives a life-like, intimate performance and why shouldn't he? This is simply a more realistic version of the character he's being playing his whole career.
“Punch-Drunk Love” is not a very realistic love story. Lena practically falls in love with Barry after seeing his picture for the first time. A couple that struggles with such anxiety probably has a hard road ahead them. Yet Emily Watson's performances makes Lena seem like a real person. She strikes the viewer as an incredibly forgiving, loving character. She accepts Barry's mood swings, because she understands the emotions at their root. Through brief dialogue, we learn that Lena was an only child, that she has a failed marriage in her past. This hints at Lena's own history as a deeply lonely person. She relates to Barry's isolation, almost intuitively. This is why their love is so passionate, as seen in an oddly funny scene where they describe each other's beauty in violent terms. Watson's performance is one characterized by knowing glances and half smiles.
a Utah mattress store, another intentionally absurd element Anderson includes. Leading this group is Philip Seymour Hoffman's Dean Trumbell. Hoffman plays Dean as a totally feckless scumbag, a greasy and uneducated bad guy who makes money ripping people off. Such a slimy, unhinged batch of villains is a deliberate contrast to the nervous, controlled life Barry lives.
The Trumbell clan threaten Barry. They steal his money and beat him up, leading to a farcical chase scene where Sandler makes a bunch of goofy gasping noises. Yet the violence and theft isn't what really pisses Barry off. During a key scene, when screaming at Dean on the phone, Barry reveals that the violation of confidentially is what truly enrages him. It's the same shit his sisters do to him all the time, as they constantly bring up embarrassing childhood stories and shameful secrets. This feeds into “Punch-Drunk Love's” story about a nervous, private person. Well, the other thing that upsets Barry is Lena being endangered. This leads to “Punch-Drunk Love”s” most cathartic moment. With a series of smooth movements, Barry beats down his attackers. It's shot like a Gene Kelly dance routine, Sandler spinning a crowbar like a top hat cane.
It wouldn't be unfair to call “Punch-Drunk Love” self-consciously eccentric. This is an odd movie that embraces its own oddness. Take, for example, the harmonium. The unusual instrument appears in the first scene. A car goes spinning through the air, lands upright, and drops the instrument off. Barry lives it sitting in the driveway of his business. He only picks it up and carries it inside when he feels like it. Yet the harmonium has a deeper meaning. When he's agitated, Barry plays with the keys. When something goes wrong at work, a bellow inside the device breaks, which Barry mends with duct tape. In a weird way, the musical instrument reflects his moods and feelings. What about all that pudding? Inspired by the story of David Phillips, Barry exploits a promotion between airlines and Healthy Choice foods to accumulate millions of frequent flyer miles. Primarily by buying their pudding amass. Mostly, this is a narrative devices, so Barry can fly around the country in the second half. But it certainly speaks to his status as a dreamer who can connect dots others can't.
“Punch-Drunk Love is also distinguished from Anderson's other films because of its use of color. Barry Egan wears a bright blue suit from the first scene. That blueish tone influences other scenes throughout the film, such the scenes in Barry's apartment or offices. The blue tones are often contrasted against a glowing red color, such as Lena's dresses or the soft glow of a restaurant. The film's use of color peaks with two scene transitions. Provided by video artist Jeremy Blake, the film will sometimes fade to collages of blinding, primary colors. Moments like this, combined with Anderson's use of lens flares, helps to capture the dizzy, light-headed emotion the film is pursuing.
Everything about “Punch-Drunk Love” is meant to replicate the wild rush of emotions the film's characters feel. Its music and sound design is another component in this plan. Harry Nilsson's “He Needs Me,” famously from “Popeye,” becomes a reoccurring element in the score. This seems to perfectly mirror the seasick feelings of infatuation and belonging that Barry and Lena find. Jon Brion's score is similarly dreamy, featuring distorted sounds and the organ-like moaning of the harmonium. In addition to the music, the sound design is often intriguing. Sometimes, voices can be heard whispering throughout the film. Such as when the boxes of pudding seem to call to Barry. Or over the end credits, where computerized and distant voices can be heard saying hard-to-hear phrases of love and commitment.