A man with crippling social anxiety finds love.
“I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine.”
Paul Thomas Anderson (“There Will Be Blood”, “Hard Eight”) isn't a director who likes to stick to one type of movie, he's very eclectic when it comes to his choices on genre in filmmaking, but he always creates uncompromising, intelligent films, testing viewers patience and their expectations. PTA doesn't want you to watch the same movie that's been done years before, he creates something new always aiming high in his ambitions, and he mostly always sticks the landing. Punch Drunk Love is a sort of black comedy, romance, and study on social anxiety all mixed together into one unique, hilarious, and often touching film. This one may get overlooked by diehard movie fans and fans of PTA in general, calling it one of his lesser films, but I wholeheartedly disagree, like all of his other works, this is top tier PT Anderson.
Barry Egan (Adam Sandler, forthcoming “Uncut Gems”) runs his own business from a small storage unit with a few other colleagues selling bathroom supplies, Barry is a lonely man but not one who seeks attention or affection. His social anxiety is just too uprooting for him to go about having a social life, so he sticks to his work and his coffee. Barry also has seven sisters, all of whom enjoy harassing him in equal measure, calling him mean names and making fun of his new fancy blue suit, which he wears all the time. I think above all this is a story about how crippling a mental illness can be, and how sometimes we just have to let life happen. We see multiple outbursts from Barry when he becomes overwhelmed, whether it be smashing windows or threatening to murder a sister, and there's not a lot of family support until he finally opens up to one of them. This subject matter is handled with great care and awareness by PTA, never overstepping his boundaries, and blending comedy with the emotions in perfect fashion. For anyone familiar with this director's aesthetic, you know this is not your mother's romantic comedy. Punch Drunk Love is much more than that, it's odd and unique while being a hundred percent original. Barry meets a strange woman, Lena Leonard (Emily Watson, HBO’s “Chernobyl”) by happenstance one morning, on the same morning he witnessed a car crash and a mini piano being delivered, everything happens for a reason, and with everything going wrong or not going the way Barry wants things to go in his life, there's this small spark of intrigue, something he never thought he would feel in his awkward living, love. While it may sound corny in my writing, it's anything but, it's filmed so uniquely and told from such a different sort of lens, it separates itself a great deal from anything else in this genre.
The way Paul Thomas Anderson and long time collaborator/cinematographer Robert Elswit film this movie is another way it's set apart from anything else like it. The way the dull colors are juxtaposed with the bright, the subtle metaphorical iconography that represents Barry as a person, the open spaces of his office, the blue suit that seems to be his own skin, when he is most himself. The small piano that is completely transfixed in his mind, the simple need for a distraction from the every day. The way the background is alive during the work day, or the way the camera follows Barry at the same pace of his personality, erratic and strange, the whole film just feels authentically alive, and the mesmerizingly chaotic soundtrack is exactly the missing piece this puzzle needed, bringing it all together into one seamless endeavor, never distracting the viewer but bringing them that much closer to the central message.
“I'm lookin' at your face and I just wanna smash it. I just wanna f*ckin' smash it with a sledgehammer and squeeze it. You're so pretty.”
Of course there's also drama, a real subversive sort as well, as one should expect from a PTA film. Barry in the second act decides to make a phone call to a sex line operator, and while all he wants is conversation, the other end wants his money, and when Barry refuses to give the girl on the other line a $750 loan, all hell breaks lose. He is constantly antagonized with phone calls at work from the phone girl, threats of stealing his credit card and other ill wishes, and then when Barry cancels his credit card, the truth is revealed about the sex line operation, ran by a crooked business thug Dean Trumbell (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, “Boogie Nights”) who sets out his goons to take care of Barry. Now I'm aware that this sounds strange for this sort of film, it's a huge subversion but it's never jarring it's something that should feel out of place but it doesn't, and that's so much of this movie, it all feels natural, it's just another testament to the directors skill and PTA isn't your typical director and he wants the audience to know that. The drama and villain are both crucial and necessary for Barry's growth and change of character, the confrontation between him and the thug is restrained but satisfying, showing the inner strength Barry had all along. It's not quite as violent or complex as other PT Anderson films, buts it just as poignant and personal.
Now I'm definitely not one to sing praises for Adam Sandler, but Punch Drunk Love is just further proof that a great director will get great performances, Adam Sandler is at his absolute very best in this film, gone are his immature antics of 'Billy Madison' and his nonsensical accents of 'Little Nicky' here Sandler gives us his most unflinching and raw performance that has yet to be topped, proving all the doubters wrong that he can and is a very good actor when teamed up with a proper script and an excellent director. Sandler is cast perfectly in this role, showing a fragile and broken man with such a crippling anxiety disorder, but also a man with strength and good to give the world, besides cheating the system for frequent flyer miles by buying a lot of pudding.. From his facial expressions, limited eye contact eyes to the ground to his body language, avoiding his sisters awkwardly sipping coffee multiple times in five seconds, Sandler is transformative under PTAs masterful direction. PT Anderson is an intense auteur and demands the very best from his actors, and while the supporting cast is great, it's this surprise turn from Sandler that makes this story come together. Even some of the goofier moments are done with such heart it's hard not to smile and this actor who is fairly ill-received amongst cinephiles, such as when he dances a goofy jig in the grocery store when things go his way, it's just such a rare pleasure to see who I once thought was a one dimensional actor bring something entirely new to the table.
“At that restaurant, I beat up the bathroom. I'm sorry.”
Overall Punch Drunk Love is probably Paul Thomas Anderson's most user friendly film. It's accessible for most film viewers looking for a quirky, dark, romantic comedy, but it also tells a story that hasn't been told before. It’s a film with great technical aspects- everything from tracking shots to the framing this movie is meant to feel chaotic as to relate to Barry even more, the music molds with the crazy to make a nice fit. At times the music works to create an almost uneasy feeling, and that helps the viewer to feel what Barry is feeling. The character change as the story progresses is just a delight to watch, especially at the end when Barry faces his troubles head on. The film gives a message of hope and love to all broken people in the world: when life is swinging at you, swing harder. Adam Sandler simply gives his all and his best as Barry Egan, fully realizing his talents as an actor under the guidance of PTA is great to watch as he completely transforms into the role. I have nothing but great things to say about this gem from the great Paul Thomas Anderson. It may not be his most complex or daring works, but it's authentic in its style, its message and its characters and should not be missed.
I give Punch Drunk Love 5 stars out of 5.
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