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Punch Drunk Love

by Dave Gourdoux

Emily Watson and Adam Sandler in "Punch Drunk Love"
Punch Drunk Love is a 2002 film directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, the brilliant talent behind Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999), and his masterpiece, 2007's There Will be Blood.  Because Boogie Nights was such an audacious debut, because of Magnolia's star studded cast and ambitious reach, and because of the undeniable greatness of There Will Be Blood, Punch Drunk Love is often overlooked.  That's a shame, because it's truly a great film, and explores some of the same themes as the others.

Punch Drunk Love also features one of the most remarkable performances you'll ever see by one of the unlikeliest actors:  Adam Sandler.  Sandler has since turned in solid, semi-dramatic performances in James Brooks' Spanglish and Judd Apatow's Funny People, but those pale in comparison to his work here.  Sandler's performance is all the more astonishing when you consider that prior to Punch Drunk Love, his output was almost completely juvenile comedies like Happy Gilmore, The Waterboy, and Little Nicky.  It's a tribute to Anderson's perception and instincts that he saw something in Sandler that nobody else saw; Anderson wrote the script to Punch Drunk Love with Sandler specifically in mind.

Sandler plays Barry Egan, the owner of a small business that sells bathroom novelty items.  He is a mess of neuroses and fear and loneliness.   He has seven sisters who are relentlessly hard on him, constantly embarrassing him and reminding him how messed up he is.  He is painfully aware of how badly he doesn't fit in.   He is given to fits of destructive rage and uncontrolled sobbing.

At the supermarket - note what they've been "pudding" into the carts
I'll try not to reveal too much about the story.  Suffice to say it is wonderfully quirky, featuring abandoned harmoniums, schemes to accumulate airline miles by purchasing mass quantities of pudding, phone sex scams, and four thugs sent from a furniture store in Utah.  Oh, and it has Emily Watson as Lena Leonard, a co-worker of one of Egan's sisters, who has seen a photo of Egan and decides she wants to meet him.

Sandler and Watson play off of each other perfectly, both odd and quirky, both apprehensive and intrigued with each other.  Both are desperately lonely, and their falling in love makes perfect sense because it doesn't make any sense.  The film is ultimately about both the absurdity and the transformational power of love. 

Anderson's script and direction brilliantly maintain tension and unpredictability through the entire film. It never goes where one  might expect it to go.  Just as Egan is finding the love of his life, the rest of the world is crashing down around him, as the manager of the phone sex line (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is determined to extort money from him, and sends out his thugs to collect.  In his first encounter with the thugs, Egan is badly beaten, and panic stricken, runs through the streets in a fit of pure fear and dread. 

The great Phillip Seymour Hoffman in "Punch Drunk Love"
Just as he is falling in love, as possibilities are opening up for Egan, the rest of his life is spinning out of control.  In the film's pivotal moment, after returning from a trip to Hawaii, Barry and Lena are pulling into the garage when their car is struck by a car driven by the thugs.   When Barry sees blood trickling down from Lena's forehead, he gets out of the car and confronts the thugs.  There is no trace of fear or anxiety in Barry as he disposes of the four.   Then, while Lena is being treated in the emergency room, he leaves and goes directly to Utah and confronts the Phllip Seymour Hoffman character.  "I have a love in my life.  It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine," he tells Hoffman.   This is what the film, with all of its quirky and oddball moments, is about.

It turns out that Anderson is a hopeless romantic.  The transformational power of love emerges as the main theme in his films.  In Magnolia, the hapless cop played by John C. Reilly emerges as a hero due to his capacity for love; other characters who deny or turn their backs on love meet different fates.   In There Will Be Blood, the Daniel Day Lewis character is incapable of love; not only does he end as he began, desperately alone, but in the film's ending, he bludgeons the false prophet Eli to death with a bowling pin.  Throughout this scene, Lewis is hunched over like an ape; when he raises the bowling pin to smash Eli, he is shot at the same angle as Stanley Kubrick's apes are shot in 2001:  A Space Oddysey.  Without the capacity to love, Lewis isn't quite human, he's still a link behind on the evolutionary latter.  In Punch Drunk Love, it's love that lifts Barry out of his neurosis and solitude, and transforms him into a fully functional individual.

The reference to Kubrick isn't isolated.   It seems that there is a profound Kubrick influence on all of Anderson's work.  In Punch Drunk Love, there are several long shots of an empty set that slowly pull in while the action is occurring outside of the frame.  Watch 2001: A Space Oddysey or The Shining and you'll see similar shots of the interior of the spacecraft or the Overlook Hotel.  Like Kubrick, Anderson's films are all gorgeous to look at; unlike Kubrick (with the exception of James Mason in Lolita), Anderson is able to consistently get great performances from his leads.

Among the filmmakers that have emerged in the past twenty or so years, only Quentin Tarantino and David Fincher (and to a lesser extent, Charlie Kaufman) and Anderson seem interested in picking up where serious film artists like Truffuat, Kubrick, Coppola and Scorsese left off, in using the language of film to make personal statements and a define a cohesive thematic arch that is deepened and expanded with each subsequent film.  Like Tarantino, Anderson's films are almost manic in their love of film. 

Martin Scorsese once said that the job of the artist is to make the audience care about his obsessions. Anderson accomplishes this but never at the expense of the plot.  He is, above all else, a uniquely gifted story teller.

For more information visit IMDb: www.imdb.com/title/tt0272338