Punch Drunk Love (United States, 2002)
Punch Drunk Love represents a departure on the part of two key participants. For Adam Sandler, who portrays the film's protagonist, this is an attempt to play it straight, without falling back on antics, physical comedy, or silliness. For Paul Thomas Anderson, this is an opportunity to do something that is shorter and less demanding than his other films. Punch Drunk Love has been called a "romantic comedy", but that's probably a misnomer. The movie certainly features a romance, but there aren't a lot of laughs. The average viewer will probably smile and chuckle a few times, but the guffaws will be few and far between. (Interestingly, some of the best gags will be missed by inattentive viewers, because they occur in the background.)
Punch Drunk Love is quirky and stylish, but not in a manner that comes across as overly artsy or pretentious. Anderson, whose previous outings (Boogie Nights and Magnolia) were challenging, compelling, and deep, has not abandoned his affinity for trying new things, even though he's working in a vastly different genre. He frequently employs long, unbroken takes and uses sound as a means both to shock the audience and to give us a measure of insight into what's going on in the confused mind of the lead character. (The first time Anderson cranks up the sound occurs during a car crash. The event is so unexpected that I jumped in my seat – a feat that even a well-produced horror movie can have difficulty accomplishing.)
In Anderson's crosshairs is Barry Egan (Sandler), a grown man with serious emotional issues. In addition to being socially retarded and borderline agoraphobic, he is subject to frequent emotional outbursts that can alternately result in an explosion of anger or an unrestrained bout of crying. Barry, who sells miscellaneous items in a warehouse setting (I like the "dice & dollars" plungers), has discovered a way to take advantage of a marketing loophole that will allow him to accumulate more than one million frequent flier miles. All he has to do is buy about $3000 of Healthy Choice pudding, and he can fly almost anywhere he wants. The only downside to all of this is that Barry has never been on an airplane. Then he meets Lena (Emily Watson), the shy and secretive British friend of one of Barry's seven sisters. She is smitten with him, and he with her, and they begin a tentative relationship. When she goes to Hawaii on a business trip, Barry elects to follow her. Meanwhile, he is feuding with a phone sex girl whose services he once employed. She has decided to extort money from Barry, and, when he refuses to pay, she gets her boss (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to arrange to have him roughed up.
Some will probably trumpet Punch Drunk Love as an opportunity for Adam Sandler to show his range. And, while it's true that Sandler has unquestionably ventured into virgin territory, he's not doing things significantly different from what he usually does. Barry is the quintessential Sandler character – an angry man stuck in a state of arrested emotional and social development – with the humor siphoned off. This is Happy Gilmore or Billy Madison with the comedy button on mute. It's interesting to see how genuinely disturbed Sandler's screen alter-egos can be when they are no longer viewed through the distorted lens of mirth.
The film is so focused on Barry that the other characters are given short-shrift. The talented Emily Watson is underused. With limited screen time, she manages to do a few things with her timid character, but one has the feeling that, given the opportunity, Watson could have developed Lena into a compelling individual. Likewise, Anderson regular Philip Seymour Hoffman has little more than an extended cameo (although he engages in a delightfully profane shouting match with Sandler).
In many ways, it's unfair to compare Punch Drunk Love with Boogie Nights and Magnolia (or even Anderson's debut, Hard Eight), since this movie has different goals. It's not as serious or intense, nor does it dig as deeply into the fractures of the human experience. But Punch Drunk Love is unapologetically offbeat, and, while the chemistry between Sandler and Watson never really sizzles, there's enough between them to keep the viewer interested. And they have a few unusual endearments. During a sex scene, Barry looks lovingly at Lena and says, "I want to smash your face with a sledgehammer." Her equally touching response has something to do with chewing his flesh.
In the end, Punch Drunk Love's real strength is its willingness to take off on some unexpected tangents: the phone sex extortion, the massive accrual of frequent flier miles, and Barry's bizarre obsession with a certain musical instrument. Anderson has created the kind of unconventional "romantic comedy" we might expect from him. And, while it could be a disappointment to die-hard Sandler fans (who don't get even a sampling of their hero's usual lowbrow humor) and lovers of traditional romance, Punch Drunk Love offers a lot to those who appreciate motion pictures that embrace a journey into relatively new territory.
Punch Drunk Love (United States, 2002)
Cast: Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Luis Guzman, Mary Lynn Rajskub
Screenplay: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cinematography: Robert Elswit
Music: Jon Brion
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures