November 7, 2002

Punch Drunk

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Warning: this is not a romantic comedy. Which is not to say Punch Drunk Love isn’t wonderfully romantic and comic. But this film is brought to you by the director who gave you biblical rainstorms of frogs and a thirteen-inch penis. Who you say? He’s young, he’s cocky, and he won just won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival. He’s Paul Thomas Anderson.

Still, Punch Drunk Love is new territory for P.T. Going against the epic lengths of his last films, this one floats by in a well-trimmed 95 minutes. Even more surprising, Punch Drunk features Tollbooth Willy himself, Adam Sandler. Before you start warming up for Hooters jokes, be prepared for a more subtle (and astonishingly good) performance — new territory for Sandler as well.

Sandler plays Barry Egan, a bathroom supply wholesaler who lives in the San Fernando Valley. Barry is our tragic hero, constantly belittled by his seven sisters and obsessed with clipping Healthy Choice coupons for frequent flier miles. Barry’s life takes a turn for the worst when a sex-hotline call goes bad and he’s blackmailed by a shady Utah mattress store, lead by an over the top Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Still, light arrives in Barry’s life in the form of Lena Leonard, played by fresh-faced and sincere Emily Watson. Lena sees beyond Barry’s docile awkwardness and they engage in a sweet, albeit clumsy courtship. Barry struggles for love against his incessant bad luck, threatening him at every turn and testing him to take control of his destiny.

Punch Drunk is a self-contradiction, being at once classically whimsical and cruelly hilarious. Between Barry’s Las Vegas toilet plungers and several hundred cups of pudding, the film is so awkwardly funny that the theatre was filled with random laughter throughout almost its entirety. Barry is both pitiful and triumphant, the loner with an anger management problem who you love just the same. Barry’s foolishness goes beyond endearing, however. His ineptitude borders on neurosis at times, giving moments in the film undeniably disturbing undertones.

Visually, the film is stunning, with extensive use of light and silhouette set in the cool colors of Barry’s true blue suit. Anderson balances the film with long-shots of symmetry and constant hand-held work that places you behind Barry’s shoulder for his long bumbling journey.

Like all of Anderson’s movies, his characters are held responsible for their treatment of others. Anderson may kick his heroes when they’re down, maybe even twice for a good laugh, but in the end the good heart always gets a second chance. Destiny is there to intervene, though uncertainly at times. You never know when a random phone call could be the possibility of love, or four blond brothers from Utah in a pickup truck sent to blackmail you.

Punch Drunk is beautifully choreographed, unconventional, and chaotic, but by far this is Anderson’s most digestible film. From Barry’s plunger warehouse to a random harmonium that lands in the street, the imagery is clean and concise. Though the film has the tortured feeling of supermarket lighting, as a whole it is genuinely uplifting. While Anderson’s universe is punishing and random, serendipitous and giddy love can prevail.

Archived article by Lauren Sommer