Ostensibly a romantic comedy, but Punch Drunk Love is quite unlike any you have seen before. Strictly speaking, it could even scrape in as a musical in the way it employs music to drive the narrative. Just don’t go looking for any show-tunes.
It stars Adam Sandler as…
Hold on, don’t go! Granted, the idea that “it stars Adam Sandler” will be enough to put some people off. His brand of comedy, certainly since Punch Drunk Love, aims for the cheapest laughs at any cost to his credibility. Even if you like his stuff, he’s not the kind of actor you would expect to see in a serious role. Or at least in a role with serious intentions.
This is his Truman Show or his Lost In Translation, but like Will Ferrell in Stranger Than Fiction he seems content for this (and maybe Spanglish) to be his only notable attempt to demonstrate more dramatic clout. That’s not fair on Ferrell though because his brand of comedy is good enough that he can still pack out a cinema. Sandler’s unlikable, arrogant shtick is just bad taste.
That’s a terrible shame because he is superb in Punch Drunk Love. The role plays on and against the formula he had created for himself by 2002; that of the loner given to explosive rage. It’s a tender, layered and generous performance, one which makes you understand how intelligent an artist he really is. Perhaps he simply needs to let go of his own ego, play nice with a brilliant cast of actors and trust a director as he clearly did here. As a result he is the unlikely anchor in a delightful, innovative film. A very likeable performance of an unlikable man, who seems to just want to be left alone. You find yourself rooting for him not to be. So, let’s try that again.
Punch Drunk Love stars Adam Sandler as Barry Egan, a neurotic, rather lonely oddball who sells novelty toilet plungers for a living. He has seven sisters, who all lovingly torment him, and he’s the sort of guy that buys cheap chocolate pudding in bulk to collect air-miles. Not that he has anywhere to go. His chances of romance are slim-to-none, but a chance meeting with Lena (Emily Watson) changes that. She seems a bit off-centre herself and sees something in Barry she likes. If he can trust himself to be honest with her, maybe he’ll have a shot at real happiness and be content. He just needs to deal with the sex-line operator (Philip Seymour Hoffman) trying to extort cash first.
If the Coen Brothers remade Taxi Driver as a musical with a stutter, maybe we’d get something close to Punch Drunk Love. In truth though this is uniquely Paul Thomas Anderson’s film and only he could make it. It’s possibly his most honest film, as close to his own sensibilities as we are likely to see. All of his films have been brilliant in a different way; Punch Drunk Love is perhaps closest in sensibility to the unusually obtuse The Master and the likeable musically-inclined Magnolia.
It must be stressed, Punch Drunk Love is not a musical. Neither is Magnolia, except it does use music more openly. Paul Thomas Anderson understands the intrinsic rhythm of narrative and sometimes explores that literally. In this case, when Barry is at his most neurotic, the editing is harsh, the narrative driven by chaos and watching the film can be likely trying to listen a radio with a poor signal, intentionally of course. Barry doesn’t quite fit, like he himself is out of tune. But he finds quiet solace in an abandoned Harmonium and when he can get a tune out of it, the diegetic world seems to fall into order around it and him. A similar thing happens when he relaxes around Lena. Scenes like this are at odds with the more unpredictable comedy of when he randomly bursts into tears, or kicks in three windows at his sisters.
So, definitely not a musical then. Or at least an Eric Morecambe one with all the right notes not necessarily in the right order. But it embraces a sensibility that responds in that same awkward way a traditional show musical will burst into a perfectly rehearsed song and dance number. Strictly speaking, every musical you have ever seen is breaking logical rules of narrative and paying little attention to making actual sense. Punch Drunk Love seems to be a response to this. Not critically so, but just highlighting the contradictions by making them work outside of an audience who would usually accept them.
It’s a strange film, brazen in contrivance. The opening scene has Barry alone witnessing an astonishing car accident. As he recoils in shock, a van screeches to a halt, dumps the Harmonium and roars off. He speaks with no-one and then grabs the instrument and scurries off with it! Neither event is given any further explanation, but in just a few seconds we get a sense of his character and he now possesses the thing that will help the story unfold.
The more obvious and traditional innovation of the film is in the mise en scene exploiting naturalism. Barry’s world is rather bland and normal, but he is dressed throughout in a strikingly blue suit. Several throwaway lines of dialogue tell us this is unusual. Clearly it is for our benefit. He inhabits almost every scene and scant regard is paid to highlighting anything else. He even visits Hawaii in one sequence and despite a street carnival taking place, all we see is him yelling down a phone in one of his frequent outbursts! Scenes are often also broken up with video art by Jeremy Blake. Dream-like and colourful, their inclusion is eccentric, but relates to Barry’s character, just as everything does. Meanwhile Jon Brion provides a score just as eccentric and organic. Even a truck’s brakes in one brief sequence form part of the soundtrack. He and Anderson worked closely on this film as they did with Magnolia, Brion even providing the strange Harmonium instrument, on which some of Sandler’s scenes were improvised.
Emily Watson and the much missed Philip Seymour Hoffman provide fantastic support for Sandler and round out a colourful, vibrant film. Strange though it may seem, Sandler works with them brilliantly and owns the film overall. He can be hilarious and sad as awkward Barry and yet in his relationship with Watson, uplifting and genuine. He brings scenes to life that might otherwise be too odd for their own good (buying chocolate pudding for example). Someone should make him watch his performance again.
All of Paul Thomas Anderson’s work is brilliant in different ways. This is more loose, surreal and scattershot than usual, but also it is his most intimate film. Perhaps there is more than a little bit of the notoriously reserved director in Barry Egan, so it’s worth investing in more than once. If it matches your own rhythm, it is a unique and special experience.
The clever photography by Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood) appears disarmingly and intentionally routine. Adam Sandler’s suit stands out all the more for it. The film somehow seems older than 2002 in some ways. The natural lighting and contrast is soft, but where it really shines is in the surreal moments of Jeremy Blake’s video art and almost literally so in the brief, blue lens flares. While not an extraordinary transfer, it stands out against previous editions.
This is a brilliant DTS-HD Master Audio track. You appreciate a film like this in the quieter moments because that’s when you get the range of subtlety in the unusual score.
This is an unusual release from Criterion. It lacks the tenacity you find in their typical extra features and there is a sense that cast and crew are largely absent; there aren’t even contributions from film historians, so there is little insight into one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s most intriguing films. The same can be said of Adam Sandler. In their finest releases, Criterion can be seen as curator’s of the release, but here the film remains an enigma.
Deleted Scenes (7m) - Two rather inconsequential scenes; one of Barry receiving more calls from his sisters, extending a gag in the film. Another is an alternative version of him paying off Philip Seymour Hoffman’s thugs.
Mattress Man Commercial (1m) - Almost counts as another deleted scene with Philip Seymour Hoffman advertising mattresses (the cover for his phone sex scam). Brief, but very funny prat-fall.
Blossoms and Blood (12m) - Short film version of the main feature and even more raw. It’s a curiosity, though little more. Time and arrative take a back-seat to the indistinct imagery.
Scopitones (6m) - A collection of sequences featuring Jon Brion’s score and Jeremy Blake’s artwork. A scopitone were a sort of music video in the 1960s, so this is intended as a jukebox of sorts.
Jon Brion (27m/10m) - An interview at last with some insight into this unusual film, and from one of the most important people. Composer Jon Brion’s score drives the strange narrative and he explains how well it was integrated. Also, some of the work was done before the film, to which Paul Thomas Anderson edited it and Brion wrote some of the score after hearing what Adam was playing naturally on the Harmonium. Also includes 10 minutes of recording session behind the scenes footage.
Jeremy Blake (20m) - A conversation between Michael Connor and Lia Gangitano about the late Jeremy Blake and his abstract art that peppers the film. Includes additional art for the film.
Cannes Film Festival, 2002 Studio Interviews (7m) and Press Conference (28m) - Interviews from Cannes in 2002 with cast and crew. Perhaps it is ironic that such an impenetrable film should include old interviews, that themselves are inconsequential and messy. Press Conference (28m)
The Pudding Guy (5m) - One plotline features Barry buying a ridiculous amount of puddings, because there was a loophole in a frequent flyer miles offer. This was based on a real person, David Phillips, and this was an interview NBC did with him.
A lighter than usual release from Criterion, but Adam Sandler's finest moment has never looked better.