Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson has taken massive risks with every film he has ever made, and his recent film Punch Drunk Love (due out soon on video) is no exception. Both Anderson and his star Adam Sandler here grow by leaps and bounds. Together, the two create a completely original film with its own logic, unique humor, and startling beauty.
Everything in this film is exaggerated, especially Sandler’s character, Barry Egan. He is unsure of himself, enclosed in his own self-hatred and fear. He communicates clumsily, and his failed attempts at explaining himself lead him to inappropriate eruptions of painful emotion. It is hard to imagine anyone else succeeding in this role besides Adam Sandler, primarily because it plays to his strengths, the wild, sociopathic outbursts that spring from hidden paranoia and self-loathing. Here, in contrast to his previous film roles, he has the opportunity to channel deeper into his character instead of having to rely on his usual fare of off-color jokes told in funny voices. I never thought I would empathize with Adam Sandler in any role, but Punch Drunk Love shows a different Sandler.
Here’s a good example: early in the film Barry arrives at a sister’s house for a birthday party that he did not want to attend. As he walks in the front door, he overhears his sisters talking about an incident when they were kids, in which Barry got so mad at being called “gay boy” by his sisters that he threw a hammer through a patio door. They all laugh at the story, and at him. The place is crawling with people, and a thousand conversations bombard Barry. As he makes his rounds to everyone’s banal greetings and quips, you can see Barry squirming. Awkwardness seeps from his pores; it’s so thick that you can feel it on your skin. Finally, his emotions boil over and he again takes it out on the patio door, kicking and shattering it just as everyone sits down for dinner. It’s a jarring bit of action, but it characterizes Barry perfectly: he is a lonely, socially-inept man’s id, lacking the internal censors other people have that keep them from publicly expressing the same overwhelming frustration and helplessness that he suffers.
Barry soon encounters Lena (Emily Watson), a friend of his sister, who had set up a “random” encounter so that she will have a chance to meet him. From the first time they lay eyes on each other, it is Lena who must do most of the work. She wants him, and he wants her, but his awkwardness and fear keep him from accepting the fact that she actually likes him. This is understandable–Lena’s affection for him makes little sense. Why would anyone love a guy as messed up and strange as Barry? Nonetheless, Lena loves Barry from the start.
Punch Drunk Love is not psychological realism; Anderson makes no attempt to explain Barry or Lena, or their actions. Instead, he is more interested in exploring how his characters get out of their psychological predicaments. How people escape from their own wretched lives has been a major preoccupation of Anderson all the way back to his first film, Hard Eight, but the theme appears most clearly in Magnolia, in which a mosaic of petty and self-destructing characters are offered a chance for connection and reconciliation through a bizarre act of God, a rain shower of frogs. In Punch Drunk Love, Barry’s escape route, the inexplicable affection Lena has for him, is evident almost from the start. For Barry, it is simply a matter of recognizing and accepting that fact. What ensues, then, is the story of Barry’s acceptance of her love.
Punch Drunk Love is a reworking of the romantic/screwball comedy. This well-established genre has a few simple bedrock rules: a maladroit man meets the perfect woman who is impossibly out of reach. In the end, he wins her heart, but not before he almost blows it, saved only by the woman’s glowing grace and kindness. Anderson extracts that final marvelous moment of grace and acceptance, and employs it to structure his whole film. Barry doesn’t have to fight for her love; instead, he is hounded by Lena to accept her love. She is the initiator of the relationship and prods him to continue, allowing him room to screw up and to admit the failings that have frozen him in fear and self-hatred. Barry finally does, on the spur of the moment, make that final leap by flying to Hawaii where Lena is on a business trip.
Meanwhile, Barry is also running from a group of extortionists. When he calls a phone sex line in a desperate attempt just to talk to someone who will treat him with some kindness, the operator tricks him into giving his personal information; her boss then sets out to empty Barry’s pockets. The thug soon sends four of his stooges to rough him up. Initially, Barry tries to reason with them, even taking the blame for money they steal from him, but they continue to harass him, and he continues to cower in their presence.
This all changes when Barry returns from Hawaii, with Lena on his arm. The thugs ram his car, Barry and Lena are sent spinning, and when they stop he turns to see that she is bleeding from the head. The scene happens unexpectedly and hits hard. In a rather quiet, nonviolent film, its graphicness shocks viewers, which is why it’s so satisfying to see Barry, his awkward helplessness now transformed into pure focused action, get out of the car and expertly subdue all four bad guys with a tire iron. Barry has found someone who loves him, and when that person is threatened, all of his previous hesitation and powerlessness vanishes as the deeply buried protector instinct comes roaring to the surface.
These sequences, like the rest of this movie, are more expressionistic than realistic. We experience the story through the skewed perspective of Barry, and the misery the thugs put Barry through is better understood as a manifestation of his fear. This is his nightmare: in a moment of weakness he attempts to breach his isolation with one little phone call. But then his worst fears become real; he suffers for an attempt at making human contact, in however degraded a form. Yet Lena’s love transforms him. Not only does he swiftly take care of the four goons, he then leaves to find the boss that sent them. When Barry finally stands face to face with his tormentor (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), Barry rightly announces that he is “stronger than you can ever imagine because I have love in my life.” The scene is tense and hilarious at the same time, but it is also true. In most movie romances, the story concludes when the male finds the strength to win the woman’s love, but Anderson twists this around. Instead of showing the strength that results in love, he shows the love that results in strength.
This may all be a bit over the top, but subtlety is not Anderson’s style. His passion and presence as the creator of this film shine in every frame, and he does not shy from making his intentions clear. This results in a very self-conscious film, a work that screams that romance is silly, but at the same time shows how extraordinarily real and wonderful love is. One could describe it with terms like “meta-film” or “anti-movie,” but those would be misleading. Anderson does not just gleefully break down a genre and dance on the rubble left behind; nor does he attempt to distance the viewer from the story itself. Punch Drunk Love is not cold; rather, it draws the audience in, but as it does so as it strips the story of any pretenses in order to expose the pure strangeness of love–not just a prize we strive to win, but also an unfathomable gift we must simply accept.