Punch-Drunk Love

| November 2, 2002

Few Hollywood movies worry about realism. Even fewer romantic comedies go for any kind of verisimilitude. From Some Like It Hot to Pretty Woman, it’s all about flights of fancy and fairy-tale endings. Paul Thomas Anderson, the writer and director of the hyper yet tender Boogie Nights and the earnest yet moving Magnolia, has marshaled his unique talents behind a new film that is neither Hollywood nor conventional romantic comedy. It’s certainly not realistic, not in any literal, plot-focused kind of way, but like the harmonium in the film, it hits unconventional notes with passion, sincerity and real emotion.
Punch-Drunk Love is the strange story of Barry Egan (Adam Sandler), a young, unformed man whose mercurial personality has been shaped by growing up with seven cloying, clawing sisters who can’t let a moment go by without controlling and degrading him. Led by May Lynn Rajskub (Road Trip, HBO’s phenomenal Mr. Show), Barry’s sisters are an unpleasant bunch. They treat their little brother like a child, insulting him to his face and in public, and occasionally his sadness and rage get the best of him. He cannot express his true feelings to his sisters, due to obvious insecurity issues, and the only way he gets any kind of emotional release is through spontaneous bursts of violence. We never learn much about his sisters’ lives or what the Egans were like growing up; all we know is that Barry’s sisters have tormented him his entire life, and when we meet him, he’s about to come into his own and stand up for himself.
The reason? Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), a friend of one of his sister’s who saw a picture of Barry and wanted to meet him. As portrayed by Ms. Watson, Lena is a pretty, kind, intelligent woman who sees past Barry’s strange behavior and into the big heart behind his rage. Both Lena and Barry are quite lonely, and although we never learn much about either’s lives as they are before the film begins, it doesn’t matter. This movie isn’t about backstory or character development or plot twists (although there are several strange ones); this movie is about the cycle of emotions Barry goes through as he falls in love with Lena and lets that love empower him like never before. His emotional journey takes him to strange places. He has a run-in with a family of phone-sex operators (led by Phillip Seymour Hoffman in a small but hilarious role), he stocks up on pudding in order to get frequent flyer miles (hard to explain), he asks for psychiatric help but spends the rest of the movie both lying about his problems to most people and being painfully honest about them to Lena. He doesn’t know what he’s doing, but he’s letting his heart lead the way.
Mr. Sandler is most well-known for playing childish, goofy men with hearts of gold and a penchant for violence, and while at first glance Barry Egan does not seem to be much of a stretch for the actor, his performance reaches emotional depths Mr. Sandler has never previously approached. Barry is a wounded, cowed adult with issues that go far beyond normalcy. On some levels he is like a child, unable to express himself to his family and uncertain about how to live his life. But his anger is powerful and destructive, whether it be targeted at objects or people, and his love is soon revealed to be just as strong. He definitely stumbles along the way as he devotes himself to Lena, and while his actions and words would be enough to scare off anyone, she embraces his peccadilloes and accepts him for the unformed man that he is.
Paul Thomas Anderson has taken the typically saccharine and sentimental genre of the romantic comedy and infused with a quirky heart and soul. The movie is filled with bursts of color and a propelling, jarring soundtrack. Mr. Anderson’s movies are loaded with music; barely a frame of magnolia goes by without music playing a major role. This film is informed and shaped by music. There are several painted interludes set to instrumentals that add to the emotional energy of the movie, and the director even uses a song from Robert Altman’s Popeye to communicate with the audience. An odd choice, sure, but this movie is an odd duck all around. It feels like no other movie I’ve ever seen.
This isn’t a story about a great guy who stumbles into serendipitous love with the perfect girl next door. This is a story about a highly dysfunctional, insecure loser of a guy who is lucky to find someone that, for reasons that are never explored, sees something appealing in him. The film doesn’t employ the typical trappings of romantic comedies, it focuses more on sincere emotions than on contrived encounters. It is beautifully filmed and contains several moments of pure joy, including two quirkily romantic kisses that feel a thousand times more emotionally honest than anything Julia Roberts has ever done. Both Mr. Sandler and Ms. Watson are appealingly human leads, and although their characters are largely unexplored, their passion and pain are keenly felt. Part musical, part romantic comedy, all PTA, Punch-Drunk Love is one of the most unconventional and moving ruminations on the power of love that I’ve ever seen. Don’t miss it.

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