Synopsis: Barry Egan is a socially impaired owner of a small novelty business, who is dominated by seven sisters and is unlikely to find love unless it finds him. When a mysterious woman comes into his life his emotions go haywire, fluctuating between uncontrollable rage, lust and self-doubt. “Punch-Drunk Love leaves you addled, a little dizzy and overcome by a pleasing, unplaceable sensation…” (A.O. Scott, The New York Times) “A Romantic comedy as wonderful as it is strange that expands the genre to its absurdist outer limits and makes us believe…” (Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times). From the writer/director of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love is a dark, lovely and unique film experience.
Punch-Drunk Love 8.5
I loathe Adam Sandler films. LOATHE them. They’re just not funny to me and I never understood their mass appeal. I’ve tried, dammit, once going through all of his films in close succession to get a sense of his oeuvre. I pretty much stopped after ‘Mr. Deeds’.
Whereas Sandler is the main actor, and whereas this character is not that different from his previous ones, this is not an Adam Sandler picture:
1. It could hardly be considered a comedy. At best, one could say that it features dark, if not twisted, humour. But it’s not a comedy, per se.
2. It serves up great performances from just about everyone, including Sandler – whereas his films are hardly a thespian’s playground.
3. While Sandler’s films have tenuous plots that are mostly an excuse for displaying moronic behaviour, ‘Punch-Drunk Love’ offers the nuanced characterization of an emotionally-disturbed man trying to improve his life.
4. It has style. Some might call it pretentious, but it would hard to deny that it has an artistic sensibility that encompasses both the visual and aural aspects of motion pictures.
5. It is written, directed and produced by auteur Paul Thomas Anderson (‘Boogie Nights’, ‘Magnolia’, ‘There Will be Blood’). He may not be prolific, one may not like his style, but he never makes a half-@$$ed film.
I imagine that Anderson must have written the part precisely for Adam Sandler, because it’s constructed around the persona that Sandler usually inhabits on screen – except that his personage is now given a proper context and is explored on a more affective level. By giving him a family history filled with deep emotional abuse and isolation, his social awkwardness and stunted development can finally be understood. The exactitude with which it fits Sandler’s typical on-screen persona seems deliberate to me.
Another reason why I suspect that this was designed for Sandler is the fact that Anderson is friends with him, and announced after ‘Magnolia’ that his next film would be an Adam Sandler picture – to much laughter from an incredulous press. Seeing as three years passed between both films, it’s likely that contracts weren’t already signed between the various parties when he made the announcement – and that a script was likely not even written.
While there are a number of terrific actors filling the screen (Luis Guzmán, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Emily Watson… to name a few) the true centrepiece is Sandler’s Barry Egan. I can’t think of any performance that I didn’t enjoy, but his was a revelation to me. I recognize that he didn’t do much that he hadn’t already done for well over a decade, but he defined that character more thoroughly by giving him elaborate body language and nuanced facial expressions.
In fact, the way that Barry Egan fidgets and twitches, the overall way that Sandler expresses himself physically in ‘Punch-Drunk Love’, even the emotion that exudes from him, suggests a more capable actor than we were privy to before, than he’d ever alluded to or attempted to demonstrate. Having said this, it is conceivable that film this was so closely tailored to fit him that he comes off better than he should.
I’ve seen some of his films since and, sadly, he’s mostly back to his old shtick: moronic characters in moronic films with no real lasting value. But I will give him another chance with ‘Spanglish’… someday. And only because it came recommended by someone whose taste I respect. I’m truly hoping to see some of Sandler’s talent again – assuming that ‘Punch-Drunk Love’ wasn’t a fluke.
‘Punch-Drunk Love’ is an unusual motion picture; it mixes drama with comedy with a smidge of quirk and fantasy. It is weird, and yet it’s not weird in a surrealistic way (à la Lynch or Buñuel) or wacky like ‘Being John Malkovich’ or ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’. What makes it peculiar is the way the film’s inhabitants behave, everyone being a misfit of sorts, and how the picture was constructed, from the editing to its bizarre soundtrack.
This particular motion picture score is omnipresent, impossible to ignore. It’s frequently in conflict with the film itself, being that it’s often very percussive or strange, but it creates an artificial tension and puts the viewer in a completely different frame of mind than a traditional, more natural, score would; it’s as though it makes audible the emotional state that Sandler’s character is in. Whether one likes it or not, it’s effective and appropriate for the film.
Watching Egan muddle his way through life, trying to find connection but failing so miserably that, in desperation, he tries to get help from outside sources was heartbreaking. And also weirdly comical. He doesn’t appear emotionally intelligent enough to figure out what he should be doing to help himself out, and yet he’s clearly smart enough to have his own business and discern discrepancies in promotional offers. So he’s not an idiot. But he certainly is maladjusted.
So one can’t help but empathize with him; he’s trying so very hard to do things right, but he’s alone, and so lonely. He’s like a clenched fist that would rather be an open hand, unable to work its muscles properly, needing physiotherapy, but having to attempt every new movement by itself, out of sheer will. Egan succeeds in some areas but he’s so awkward in all that he does that he gets extremely frustrated with himself and with his life.
The only time that the film becomes uncomfortable for me is in these moments of frustrations, because he lashes out in anger. The violence that is boiling up from inside is strictly symptomatic, but it’s nonetheless staggering and off-putting. It’s become so ingrained in him that it even manifests itself in his romantic entanglements, the pinnacle of which is a loving exchange under the guise of verbal aggression towards the end of the film. Although this odd dialogue shows us the first time that Egan is understood and accepted, and is a breakthrough for him, it remains a truly disquieting moment.
But all this discomfort also brings with it laughter. It’s almost natural to respond to this level of unease and unusual behaviour with laughter; one can’t help but react with a “what the heck was that?” and chuckle at how utterly offbeat it is. Seeing Egan run for his life, groaning like a demented beast, diving over hurdles as though he were diving into a pool, the tension that should come with danger is immediately replaced by disbelief and much chuckling.
And that’s part of the reason that I enjoy ‘Punch-Drunk Love’ so much. Whereas it paints the sober portrait of a seriously emotionally-deficient adult male trapped in an existence he wishes he could escape, it finds a way to take what could have been an especially dismal affair to outlandish vistas that keep the proceedings fresh, distract, amuse and entertain us in wild ways.
It’s not always an easy journey, but it’s a unique one that has much more to offer us than just Barry Egan’s redemption: it provides an examination of a life in transition, between turmoil and tranquility.
While a follow-up to ‘Punch-Drunk Love’ would no doubt be boring as all get-out, I’d love to find out what Egan’s existence is like after this chapter in his life. The thought that he finally knows peace of mind and that his heart is filled to the brim puts a big old grin on my face. After all, Barry Egan’s story is every single misfit’s story too – and we all want to see our own make good.