If 1999’s Magnolia was a baroque regurgitation of director Paul Thomas Anderson’s pet themes regarding tragically broken families, Punch-Drunk Love, his follow-up from 2002, is therapy in action. A cathartic primal scream wrapped up inside a rom-com and coyly teased as a “90 minute Adam Sandler comedy” when in production, Punch-Drunk Love lives in the space immediately after Melora Walters cracks a smile in Magnolia’s final frame and it tracks an angry, hilarious, moving, and cleansing journey to a place of spiritual peace, unconditional love, and harmony.
Still embroiled in familial misgivings and childhood trauma, Anderson looks to break past his issues in Punch-Drunk Love with a style that combines the heartwarming sensibilities of Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude with the daffy, surrealistic qualities that embodied Robert Altman’s Brewster McCloud, both of which were released in 1971 and, not coincidentally, starred Bud Cort as a coddled young man who, like Adam Sandler’s Barry Egan in Anderson’s film, is chock full of existential angst and familial dislocation.
Slotted into a personality-free strip of businesses in a ghostly quiet part of Los Angeles, Barry Egan runs a shop that sells bulk novelty items. Into his life one day walks (literally) Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), a curiously quiet and sanguine woman who works with one of Barry’s seven sisters and is curious to meet him and, it is later revealed, goes through no small effort to meet him.
Barry longs for connection but is so awkward and shy that he is virtually unable to function in any real social environment. This causes Barry to be under an enormous amount of pressure, the vast majority of which comes from his sisters, all of whom pick at him mercilessly and without the slightest inkling of how uncomfortable he is in his own skin. A party at one of his sister’s house devolves into an episode where he finally cracks and forcefully relieves a sliding glass door of its glass with his fists.
Despite the film’s nervous hilarity, there is a very deep sadness in Punch-Drunk Love that clearly resonates. Scenes played for laughs, such as the conversation between Barry and his brother-in-law (Robert Smigel) or the scene which reflects the least erotic phone sex call ever made, are hilarious but tinged with a heartbreak borne from palpable loneliness. A discarded harmonium which needs a little love and care before it can make any music serves as both a purposefully unsubtle cinematic metaphor and as a soothing agent for Barry as the pressures pile up on him by the second. The film also deals with the all-too-common, abject horror of never being able to live down an embarrassing moment when one might not have been it at their best, it coming to back to haunt you throughout the years. It shows how the unforgiving and unthinking cajoling of others, often done in fun and without intentional malice in their hearts, can create a needlessly heavy burden for those who have stumbled in this life, even if their stumble had the best of intentions behind it or it it was backed by fear or pain.
Punch-Drunk Love proved Adam Sandler was ready for prime time and it’s a genuine shame that, 2019’s Uncut Gems notwithstanding, he hasn’t either taken or been given the opportunity to show the incredible range shown here. Equally great in a much more subtle role, Emily Watson is absolutely radiant and acts as the embodiment of one of Magnolia’s beautiful and wounded flowers. Reliable second-banana Luis Guzman is an absolute riot as Barry’s deadpan and suspicious-but-game business partner. And going four for four in Anderson’s early work, Philip Seymour Hoffman reigns supreme as Dean Trumbull, the blow-dried shyster who operates his disreputable phone sex service through a mattress warehouse in Provo, Utah. Like a Mephistopheles version of Barry, he over-exudes the confidence Barry lacks and runs a business that is likely more profitable than Barry’s (though, obviously, it’s likely through a whole host of illegal means). But in the end, Barry’s heart, at least three times the size of the Mattress Man’s, is where it eventually counts as reflected in the film’s beautifully played climax.
There are so many wonderful things packed into Punch-Drunk Love’s scant running time that they’re almost impossible to annotate. The airline miles gag, based off a true-life case, is an ingenious MacGuffin that almost doesn’t register; the moment when Barry pries Lena’s hotel phone number from his sister is pure comedy gold and provides a release like no other; and the film wears its literal connection to Robert Altman on its sleeve as “He Needs Me,” the Harry Nilsson-penned ballad from Altman’s Popeye, is proudly cribbed for the soundtrack for one of the film’s most transcendently heartfelt moments.
On the technical side, Jon Brion’s percussive score is a nerve-wracking and percolating beast that can transition into a florid boutique of gorgeous instrumentation on a dime. Robert Elswit’s photography is gorgeous and playful without sacrificing any of the film’s baked-in darkness; its purposeful and masterful lens flares suggesting a magical vibrancy that is cutting through his rotten world and into Barry’s soul. And there has to be something said for the faith and control on display here by Anderson. After two very sprawling epics, the draw and hold practiced here is astonishing and key to the film’s ultimate success.
Due to Anderson’s keen use of color and framing, the audience might recognize after repeat viewings that Lena is actually stalking Barry throughout the early moments in the film. Later, Barry will prove again that his temper can create a ghastly amount of destruction that runs the gamut from a dangerous outburst to a completely justified beatdown. Yet, throughout it all, these characters still register as fragile and gentle things; imperfect people in a vastly more imperfect world who are nonetheless perfect for each other. Punch-Drunk Love is like capturing lightning in a bottle and a true thing of absolute beauty.
(C) Copyright 2022, Patrick Crain