Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

2002, Columbia. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Luis Guzmán.

Decent Films Ratings

Overall
Recommendability
?C+
Artistic/
Entertainment Value
?
Moral/Spiritual
Value (+4/-4)
? +1-2
Age
Appropriateness
?Adults*

External Ratings

MPAA ?R USCCB ?A-III

Content advisory: Much vulgarity, recurring crude sexual dialogue, and minimal profanity; menace and brief violence; an offscreen nonmarital affair.

By Steven D. Greydanus

If you see one Adam Sandler movie in your life, Punch-Drunk Love would be the one to see. Actually, technically, I’ve seen only one Adam Sandler movie in my life, this being that one, though I’ve watched substantial bits of others. Those bits didn’t inspire me to watch the movies in their entirety, or to see any others in Sandler’s oeuvre. Punch-Drunk Love I would consider seeing again, and that’s something.

Which is not to say the movie is without problems or off-putting elements, or even that I’m entirely sure what it’s about. The movie is directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, whose previous films Magnolia and Boogie Nights (which I also have not seen) met with much critical attention and praise, mixed with faint but determined detraction. Watching this film, I see what everyone has been talking about.

Regarding Punch-Drunk Love, much has been made of the sense of not knowing what’s going to happen next. Anderson’s opening scene is like a manifesto of unpredictability. Opening with a phone conversation in a stark warehouse space, the scene follows Barry Egan (Sandler) outdoors, where the morning waits in expectant silence for the day to begin, as the audience waits for the movie to begin. What kind of day will it be? What sort of movie are we watching?

Then, in rapid succession, two startling and entirely unrelated things happen that you wouldn’t have guessed and can’t immediately fathom. It’s like a cannon blast alerting us to check our expectations at the door.

This begins, I find, with my expectation that the startling opening events will in some way become comprehensible or figure into the rest of the movie. In fact, of the two events, one is never revisited at all (though it’s echoed later in the film), while the other sets up a series of scenes — it would be going too far to speak of a "sub-plot" — that don’t figure in any obvious way into any of the other onscreen events and don’t have any obvious story function or meaning.

In another movie, these loose threads might be a sign of carelessness, but Anderson’s filmmaking is too deliberate to allow that interpretation. Or perhaps we might say he’s being careless on purpose. Like the characters Sandler plays, Anderson’s opening scene evokes a sense of capricious whimsy with a menacing edge. From this beginning, the film goes on to establish a quirky but definite sense of rhythm, a staccato tattoo punctuated by occasional odd moments of what would ordinarily be called slapstick, but don’t seem intended to work on that level here.

If the slapstick bits are punctuation, the two events in the first scene (especially the first one) are exclamation points, one might say, without sentences. Looking back, I feel a bit jerked around. It’s not hard to shock the audience. It shouldn’t be something you do just to say "Pay attention!"

Actually, maybe it is hard to shock the audience. I’ve seen a number of thrillers and action movies this year, but few felt as unsafe and unpredictable as Punch-Drunk Love. Emily Watson, who plays Sandler’s love interest, was menaced by a homicidal psychopath in Red Dragon, but as good as she was in that movie, I never felt as worried about her as I did in a single, sickening moment in this film.

Likewise, Barry’s entanglement with an unscrupulous sex-line tart who’s got his credit card and social-security numbers touches contemporary anxieties about identity theft and so forth that give rise to more genuine unease than the cinematic same-old same-old of, say, stalking assassins (Road to Perdition, The Bourne Identity), buckling submarine hulls (K-19: The Widowmaker), or even aliens clawing under pantry doors (Signs).

Anxiety? Identity theft? Wasn’t this supposed to be a romantic comedy? Yes and no. Punch-Drunk Love is about a romance, and it does have some funny moments. But it’s mostly the kind of humor that hurts.

Like other Sandler characters, Barry Egan has a milquetoast exterior that masks an interior state of emotional arrested development and deep-seated rage. Sometimes I get the impression that Sandler movies want us to regard their hero as an immature but all-right slacker type who just gets pushed over the edge by other people’s bad behavior; but he’s always seemed creepy to me, and the more the movie wants me to like him, the creepier he seems.

Here, for perhaps the first time, a Sandler film shows us where the character’s neuroses come from. A scene at a family dinner with Barry’s seven sisters leaves little to the imagination regarding the torments of Barry’s childhood, and his pathetic cries for help, both verbal and nonverbal, are used against him. Sandler gives a painfully raw performance, and if he’s still not a particularly likable guy — he tells lies, he’s violent, he calls a phone sex line out of sheer loneliness — at least you understand him a bit, and you’d like to help him if you could.

Wanting to help him is the only conceivable motive I can imagine for Lena Leonard (Watson, appealing as ever) taking an interest in Barry. Lena forgives his lies and overlooks his outbursts, but what she sees in him is a mystery, unless like the audience she feels sorry for him and wants to give him a chance to redeem himself.

Certainly if anyone in the film should have a chance to redeem himself, it would be Barry. Happily, it’s a chance he takes, and, along the way, the movie achieves a level of redemption as well.

A subplot, based on an actual event, involves Barry’s discovery of a loophole in a marketing promotion that allows him to accrue over a million frequent-flier miles by buying just three thousand dollars of Healthy Choice pudding. That’s funny (and the way the movie plays this device off Barry’s personality makes it funnier). At the same time, there’s no special reason for it to be in the same movie as — well, just about anything else in the movie. And a lot of the other things are like that too.

Tags: Comedy, Drama, Romance

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