During the press conference for Magnolia at the Cannes Film Festival, Paul Thomas Anderson announced his next project was going to be an Adam Sandler comedy. Everybody laughed. Nobody took him seriously; after all, this was the man who had directed two incredibly large and challenging films in Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Three years later when Punch Drunk Love was released, people were still surprised.
Admittedly, I have never liked Adam Sandler – I always found him annoying and grating – and I have never liked him in anything since this film either, which is a great shame as Paul Thomas Anderson manages to channel all of Sandler’s awfully annoying qualities into something powerful and unique. Sandler’s screen persona is childish, immature, crass and strange, but Anderson’s genius here is that he works all that into this darkly twisted romantic comedy-drama. With a great director and electric screenplay, Sandler comes alive in ways that were unimaginable before. Sandler reveals a peculiar depth to the character of Barry Egan – a sharp menace that is present in his comedies, but is fully exploited to great effect here.
Barry Egan owns a company that produces novelty toiletry items, he has seven excruciatingly overbearing sisters who are never off his case and oppress him into insanity. They boss him around, invade his space and torture his mind. He’s emotionally abused by them and at a family gathering where he tries to act sociable and friendly, he completely loses it in a self-destructive fit of a rage destroying some glass doors. He has constant outbursts of erupting violence with increasing levels of erraticness. Barry meets the incredibly sweet Lena, played by the always brilliant Emily Watson.
They hit it off straight away and go on a dinner date (if you watch the film back, pay close attention when Barry is at the supermarket; he is being followed by a woman in a red dress, and if the person in the red dress is who it heavily hints at, then the dynamic of the relationship is altered significantly). During their dinner date, Barry goes to the toilet and explodes in frightening rage, hitting and breaking everything he physically can. He returns to the table with his hand heavily bleeding, they are thrown out of the restaurant, but she doesn’t judge him, she thinks it normal. She understands him.
A sub-plot of the film is Barry’s ongoing war with a sex-line company. He’s been exploited by the woman he rang, she threatens him and extorts him for money. Barry is being pushed harder and harder, something Sandler captures perfectly and his anger finally reaches crescendo when he snaps and goes to Utah to confront the enigmatic porn boss, played by permanent Anderson collaborator, Philip Seymour Hoffman. What happens is one of the most outstanding showdowns of the decade, perfectly acted and directed with unteachable precision.
The confrontation has a terrifying anger to it, Sandler’s craziness being overwhelming and the tone is as disarming as it is hilarious. Hoffman’s cameo is brilliant as he transforms himself into something that transcends description, but the scene and the film belong to Sandler, who dare I say it, deserved an Oscar that year. Roger Ebert compared Sandler in Punch Drunk Love to Dennis Hopper, but he reminds me most of Robert De Niro in The King of Comedy. They both have this unnerving dark humour with a heavy sense of menace and an obsessive streak that eventually boils over, but it’s impossible to not love the character.
What makes Punch Drunk Love more than a normal romantic-comedy is just how dark and threatening the movie gets. Weirdness consumes the film throughout, raising it to another level – it’s pure exhilaration, never losing its humour in exchange for darkness. Anderson completely surprises us after every turn. It may be a romantic comedy-drama but it runs like a thriller, with layers of intrigue and everything is so odd and visceral it could go anywhere.
Punch Drunk Love is a masterclass in expression. The visionary director who is the finest American filmmaker since Scorsese is head of the show but contributions from composer Jon Brion, who creates a wonderful score that is as unique and expressive as the film itself and cinematographer Roger Elswit who is so key in creating the vivid look of the film. It explicitly challenges conventions of genre, twisting them around to create this masterpiece and Paul Thomas Anderson’s most overlooked work.
Despite being a romantic comedy starring Adam Sandler, it is far from accessible – the amount of weirdness and violent rage present form large parts of that. It failed badly at the box office and despite Anderson’s acclaim, especially post-There Will Be Blood, it has gone largely ignored. Punch Drunk Love, like all Anderson films, challenges the audience with its unconventional approach to everything. Sometimes, it is like a piece of abstract art and hard to see where all the seemingly irrelevant bits fit together to form a masterpiece. The film is often quiet and ambiguous, refusing to tell you what’s going on – Anderson respects the intelligence of his audience and wants them to engage with this beautiful and weird film, but only if they’re prepared to delve into the uneasy mood of the piece.
Punch Drunk Love is a twisted love story between two unique and special creations and was by far the best romantic film of the last decade – there is just so much in it to see and love. The film is wildly entertaining, it’s laugh-out-loud funny and violently dark and conveys the torture of love so perfectly. Punch Drunk Love is challenging and improves on each watch, a testament to Anderson’s creativity. It’s a vital watch and a benchmark for the romantic comedy just like Annie Hall was in 1977. It’s a true underrated masterpiece that captures everything that is to be loved about film.
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