Directed Viewing: “Punch-Drunk Love” and Exceptions that Prove the Rule

This is Directed Viewing, the series that examines a given director’s entire filmography in chronological order. Why, you ask? Because auteur theory is fun! Also, it helps me fill in my cinematic gaps and allows you to come along for a hastily constructed narrative of a career. We wander through the obscure back catalog of some of the most famous (or infamous) directors working today, and we all become better people for it.

Today’s piece continues to look at the work of Paul Thomas Anderson. Anderson, coming off of the critical success but commercial struggles of Magnolia, decided to switch gears entirely. He announced that his next movie was going to only be 90 minutes long, and that he was going to work with an actor that he was a big fan of: Adam Sandler.

Wait, what?

Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

Before we talk about this movie, let’s talk about Adam Sandler. I’m not going to pretend to play nice: I feel like Sandler’s career has mostly been a waste of everyone’s time. Sure, everyone was on board when Happy Gilmore came out, but looking back on it out it presents the same easy jokes that have exhausted most of his good will. And sure, he’s bankable box office draw still, but you get the impression that he’s happy to repackage the same abrasive man-children and juvenile gags over and over again.

It’s fairly clear he has a type of role that he mostly sticks to, as well. They’re downtrodden leading men, usually not quite schlubby but a stone’s throw away. They’re almost all universally a bit too naive for their own good, with a propensity for child-like sweetness and a constant proclivity for getting taken advantage of. In that way, they are true underdogs, beat up by the world. Yet when the script calls for big acting, almost every character is capable of ridiculous outbursts of wanton aggression. This is usually where many of the physical comedy gags come from, don’t worry too much about how uncharacteristic many of these outbursts can be.

So, given all that, what’s so amazing about Punch-Drunk Love isn’t that it plays against type–the typical example of a stereotyped light actor getting an ‘art’ role–but how it is truly and fully an Adam Sandler film. The difference comes in the care with which the world is constructed to allow this ridiculous character, not that different than all of its predecessors, to exist. It’s a love letter to Sandler’s entire career, constructed to allow him to make that role soar higher and achieve more than it ever had in more mundane films. And despite my general apathy for what Sandler’s selling, here it absolutely and totally works.

The movie starts out with Sandler’s character Barry Egan. He works at a company that sells stuff, mostly toilet plungers it would seem. But when we first meet him, he’s at work hours early, sitting alone in a big room in a small desk calling the help line of Healthy Choice foods. They have a promotion going on, see, and Egen’s the type of guy who reads all the fine print on everything. He thinks he’s found a loop-hole in their promotion that would net him a million frequent flyer miles for a song, and feels like he should check with them before trying to exploit it. That’s just the kind of guy he is.

The sense of space in this movie is strangely subjective. Everything is just slightly bigger and more imposing.

Barry’s neuroses go much deeper than that, even. He’s always dressed in the same blue suit, always finding an excuse why he felt the need to dress up. He’s a man seemingly unable to break routine. When a car accident near his workplace drops a harmonium on the street, he runs from it like the apes running from the monolith in 2001. Yet like them, he is unable to not fall victim to his curiosity, and brings it into the shop where he receives a thousand questions about why its there and evades all of them with a mumbling passiveness.

We quickly realize that Barry’s problems undoubtedly stem from the seven sisters who all walk all over him. He is the classic emasculated man, writ large by sheer volume, beaten down to the point where he politely answers sisters who have already hung up on him when they call, over and over, an attack squadron doing strafing runs against his ego. When he shows up at a party, he enters only to hear them talking amongst themselves about how he’s probably gay. When they realize he’s there, they don’t stop, they just start teasing him about it. It’s awkward and uncomfortable, watching him get torn apart by his family with such nonchalant savagery.

Barry responds to this with his normal quiet cheerfulness, though you can watch during the party as it all starts to unravel. It’s a string of tension, somewhere underneath the cheerful facade, and during the course of the constant chatter critical of him and his clothes and his job and his romantic life, he slowly boils over. A critical point is hit, and he flies into a rage, shattering several glass doors. His sisters’ response is to immediately start berating him.

Barry's ridiculous points-exploiting plan involves more pudding than should ever be gathered in one place.

Barry goes home and ends up calling a phone sex line, partially for companionship but undoubtedly in response to these efforts to undermine him. In full vulnerability mode. He ends up handing the woman on the line all of his personal information and suddenly becomes the victim of extortion, getting threatening calls when he cancels his credit card demanding money. When he hangs up the phone in fear again and again, they perceive it as a challenge and send a bunch of guys to rough him up.

As this is happening he meets the woman of his dreams, Lena (Emily Watson). She’s interested in him and seemingly okay with his eccentricities. She’s traveled the world in that old-fashioned way that signifies someone with a deeper, stranger understanding of the world. She seems to recognize his proclivity for losing his cool; when he tears apart the bathroom at the restaurant they’re in and they’re kicked out, she only worries insofar as his hand is bleeding, acting as if nothing happened when they end up out on the street. He is hopelessly taken with her, maybe the first time he’s taken with anyone. When she takes off to Hawaii for a business trip, he follows her on a whim, in part to escape the thugs that showed up threatening to beat him up but also out of pure romantic impulse.

What’s most interesting about this story isn’t necessarily its content, which isn’t necessarily all that extreme, but how well its integrated into this character. It’s a story with wild swings in tone, from an offbeat slice of life comedy about a man whittled away at by the world around him (maybe in the vein of Woody Allen, even, though far less nihilistic) to a romantic comedy that borders on the screwball comedies of the 30s/40s. Not quite in terms of rapid-fire clip and big gag set-pieces, but in the sense that nearly anything could happen and that the story has wandered firmly into uncharted waters. And would you believe it? A sense of the unknown and eschewing genre formula does wonders for investment in the story that unfolds.

The harmonium that literally falls at his feet, setting Barry's adventure into motion.

And this is truly Sandler’s movie, turning his two-sided manchild character into something genuinely unbalanced and a little bit dangerous. He’s sympathetic when he’s being torn down and when he sits there and just takes what the world dishes out, but when he explodes it’s genuinely more scary than it is cathartic or hilarious. There is the firm sense that this is a man who needs help, who could end up doing something he could seriously regret. In one notable example, the men sent to rough him up run into his car, injuring Lena. Barry, picking up a tire iron, just tears through the men who he had earlier fled from, picking them apart with a scary efficiency. It quickly ceases to be cute or a moment you can fully cheer for.

The film’s heightened reality that Anderson brings to a movie, and the skill with which he wraps stories around characters who dance on the tightrope of genius or failure, elevate Sandler into a star of his own making. It’s a bit like a magic trick, watching an actor I actively dislike put in a situation that turns him into someone I am compelled to watch; where every quirk of his becomes part of the world, texture to a story that unfolds with all the surety of a director of Anderson’s talents. Punch-Drunk Love is probably the best thing Sandler will ever do, and it’s a lighthearted and fun diversion from the serious film making Anderson is most known for. Yet it undoubtedly bears his stamp, and it’s uniqueness only underlines his considerable talents.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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