Stars: Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Luis Guzman, Mary Lynn Rajskub | Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
If you’re Paul Thomas Anderson, how do you follow up a succession of sprawling epics like Boogie Nights and Magnolia? Why, you make a small-scale rom-com, of course. Except this is PTA, so it’s not that simple. On the surface, Punch-Drunk Love looks like the runt of Anderson’s litter – perhaps not helped, in retrospect, by Adam Sandler’s steady decline since 2002 – but looking again, it has a good deal to offer.
Sandler plays Barry, a blue pill guy in a bad blue suit. He owns a warehouse company that sells … well, who knows? Plungers, certainly. Barry is socially awkward and thoroughly single, and he’s under the thumb of his seven bullying sisters. One day his one vaguely agreeable sibling, Elizabeth (Mary Lynn Rajskub), introduces Barry to Lena (Emily Watson), who shows genuine interest. But out of fear and loneliness, Barry retreats. He phones a sex line and ends up being extorted. Life couldn’t get much worse.
Barry wants out of everything, so naturally he begins collecting “Healthy Choice” supermarket products in a bid to win infinite frequent flyer miles. But gradually, a more appealing way out of his predicament emerges in his awkwardly blossoming relationship with Lena. While the vultures circle Barry for his money, he and Lena circle each other, and stumble into love.
Punch-Drunk Love opens with a piano being dumped outside Barry’s warehouse. Music is literally dropped into his monotone world. At the same time, Lena appears. The avant garde musical score by John Brion tells us their story. It’s jazz from an alien world; a soundtrack to Barry’s alienation. Lena, likewise, is an alien: an Englishwoman in LA. But when they’re together, the music suddenly finds its harmony.
The central dramatic hook is that Lena is nice to Barry, and he doesn’t know what to do with that. He panics, and from this panic all the other events emerge. Niceness is something that’s absent from Barry’s life when we meet him, and it means he’s not nice to others or himself. It’s an uncomfortable journey at times, but ultimately the film is about the power of decency.
Apart from his very own self, Barry’s chief nemesis is Dean Trumbell (Philip Seymour Hoffman) AKA “Mattress Man”. He owns the racket that extorts “perverts” like Barry, and it’s Trumbell’s intervention that inadvertently triggers Barry’s ridiculous ascent to alpha manhood. The purpose of this subplot is to show Barry’s increasing confidence, but also to show the stakes of trusting in another: Barry hands over his deepest secrets (in this case, his Social Security number) and is rewarded with a violent mugging.
The general tone is sort of mumblecore meets classic screwball. We get little of the consoling romantic comedy softness to which we are accustomed. Anderson is referencing mental illness, sometimes uncomfortably so. When Barry kicks through a set of screen doors at a party and then asks a dentist for psychiatric help, we laugh, but it’s a nervous laugh. We’re watching a man’s mental breakdown – and, in classical Hollywood style, his resurrection through the power of love.
Sometimes the film is odd for the sake of odd, in the way that many romantic comedies of the 2000s were. At one point Barry runs from a call and down the street, still clutching the phone and wire to his ear. This self-conscious quirkiness can be aggravating when overdone, but Anderson mostly maintains the balance.
Going back to that call to the sex line. Depressing and funny, it’s a reminder of Sandler’s too-often unspent talent. And it’s also proof that the film is not an out-and-out comedy, but should be approached as an irreverent and bittersweet love story with pockets of levity. Anderson brings Steadicam style and a bit of scope to what is a relatively minor (and minor key) production. The ultra-widescreen and that wonderfully weird score combine with a smeared Californian morning sun to create a dreamy, unreal atmosphere.
Punch-Drunk Love is undoubtedly an oddity amongst the Anderson canon. It doesn’t have the sweep or swagger of his previous work and its humour is less subtle and slightly meaner than the films he would make subsequently. But it’s too strange and interesting a film to be forgotten.
Extras are interview heavy: Jon Brion (the composer) and Jeremy Blake (the digital artist who created the ambient titles); press bits from Cannes; and an interview with David Phillips, the frequent flyer who inspired the screenplay. We also get a short yet hilarious Mattress Man mock TV commercial, and a selection of Scopitones.
Punch-Drunk Love is out now on Blu-ray from Criterion.