With Boogie Nights and Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson pushed the limits of modern cinema’s size and scope, using massive ensemble casts to explore weighty themes with extended running times — so it was perhaps only natural that for his fourth film, he decided to scale things down. The result, 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love, weighed in at a slender 95 minutes — and with Adam Sandler in the lead, even gave the appearance of a mainstream romantic comedy.
In reality, the film is more intriguingly off-kilter than Sandler’s fans may have expected. Actually, it’s a little bit like one of those pictures that periodically make the rounds, purporting to show what Beavis and Butt-Head or Bert and Ernie would look like in real life — although Punch-Drunk Love certainly makes use of Sandler’s gift for physical comedy and his penchant for playing emotionally warped man-children, it puts both of those qualities under a harsher, more natural light; at times, it really does suggest the sort of film that might have gotten its start with someone scrawling “REAL-LIFE HAPPY GILMORE” on a napkin.
That’s one way of looking at Punch-Drunk Love, and I confess that for a portion of the movie, I wondered if that was really the sole point of the exercise. But Anderson being Anderson, even a brief, slightly goofy excursion like this one has something to say — and this movie’s message, like the depths of its protagonist’s strangeness, is slowly revealed.
The first thing that strikes you about Punch-Drunk Love is how exuberantly Anderson uses color and light here; the screen is so saturated with both of them that at times, it almost looks like a Danny Boyle picture. At the same time, Anderson’s camera is much more restrained here than it was during Magnolia or Boogie Nights; while there are certainly a lot of artful shots — pretty much the entire film is strikingly composed — they’re also largely static.
This makes perfect sense given the fact that Sandler’s character, novelty salesman Barry Egan, is a powderkeg of awkward, tightly wound repression for much of the film. In Punch-Drunk Love‘s opening act, you get the impression that you’re witnessing a very strange man on the verge of an emotional meltdown, but as time goes on, you understand that while Barry could certainly use a few sessions with a therapist, his issues have easily identifiable roots; he’s a tightly controlled guy surrounded by chaos, much of it caused by his seven overbearing sisters.
Toward the end of Magnolia, there’s an oft-quoted scene where William H. Macy’s character says “I have so much love to give, I just don’t know where to put it.” Punch-Drunk Love, in essence, is a feature-length exploration of that line — an examination of how much it can screw us up when our natural inclination to love is thwarted, and how much strength we derive from the relationships that sustain us. (On another level, it’s also sort of about the ways family can drive us crazy, but let’s look on the bright side here.)
To delve into these themes, Anderson serves up a borderline nonsensical patchwork of a plot that combines several seemingly disparate threads — Barry’s savant-like discovery of a loophole in a Healthy Choice air mileage sweepstakes, his discovery of an abandoned harmonium on the street, his halting courtship of one of his sister’s friends (Emily Watson), his entanglement with a phone sex operator who’s trying to blackmail him — to weave a portrait of unlikely catharsis.
It really can’t be overstated just how perfect Sandler is for the role. Most of the time, Barry seems like he might have Asperger’s, and his quiet stammering is right in Sandler’s wheelhouse — but so is the volcanic rage that emerges in bursts, and I’m not sure there’s another actor who could go so convincingly from meek acquiescence to kicking in a sliding glass door in such a brief period of time.
And when the movie finally explodes into chaos and violence during the last 20 minutes — in a conflict engineered by the phone sex operator’s gleefully skeevy boss (Philip Seymour Hoffman) — it’s Sandler doing what Sandler probably does best, but it serves a real purpose. As Barry warns one of his tormentors, “I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine,” and all the beatings and lunatic outbursts in the film’s final act reflect that. This is a guy who’s been healed by love — by finding a place to put his love.
It all adds up to a sweet, albeit willfully strange, romantic dramedy — and one with an intoxicatingly light touch, even for a guy who spent his first few films exhibiting a deep (and occasionally inconvenient) affection for his characters. It wouldn’t last, of course; with Punch-Drunk Love out of his system, it was time for Anderson to get back into the business of creating epic cinema — and when he returned to screens five years later with There Will Be Blood, sweetness and romance would be in awfully short supply.
Monday: Hard Eight
Tuesday: Boogie Nights
Thursday: Punch-Drunk Love
Friday: There Will Be Blood
Saturday: The Master