Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

Let’s start with Paul Thomas Anderson. Best known for There Will be Blood, right now his new nostalgia trip Licorice Pizza is in theaters and the forefront of awards buzz. I’ve seen a handful of Anderson’s movies, with Phantom Thread being my favorite. 

After a couple decades of movies I got the impression, and I’m not alone on this, that Anderson was similar to Daniel Day-Lewis’ Reynolds Woodcock from Phantom Thread. A serious auteur who is a slave to his craft and a grump to those around him. 

After reading some interviews from the past year I realized that Anderson is more complex than that and has a sense of humor about himself, he’s just super passionate about the things he loves. Which includes Adam Sadler. In an early 2000 Rolling Stone interview, Anderson was bouncing around different topics of interest and asked, “Are you aware of Adam Sandler?” intensely serious, his tone practically quivering with the joy of discovery. “I mean, are you truly fucking aware? He is headed for a level of genius in creation and acting that I just cannot wait to see keep going.”’

Somewhere in Anderson’s Happy Madison binge the idea of Punch-Drunk Love started to form, as the movie comes out two years after this interview. 

Punch-Drunk Love is an Adam Sandler Rom-Com, but filtered through a surreal chaotic dark lens. A typical Sandler character, bumbling nice man-child with anger issues, is plucked out of its formula and dropped into an arthouse movie. 

In a Happy Madison production when Sandler’s character snaps it’s played off for laughs, in Anderson’s film the same outburst is dark and heartbreaking. The movie is still humorous (for different reasons), but Anderson seems more concerned with what’s going on under the surface and what ultimately makes a Sandler character.

In Punch-Drunk Love Sandler plays Barry Egan, an extremely shy and awkward business owner who sells bathroom products in bulk. Barry is overwhelmed by life and this anxiety stems from his seven sisters. The levels range from normal concern to outright emotional abuse with his sisters, as they constantly question him about his life. Teasing him relentlessly as soon as he arrives at his own birthday party. 

Barry has never figured out how to handle the constant noise his sisters bring and it has melted into all areas of his life. He deflects, advoids, and straight up lies. One story from his childhood that the sisters harp on is an immediate trigger to Barry, so much so that when a date brings it up he has to excuse himself to destroy the restaurant bathroom. 

This is one of the ways that Anderson diverts from a typical rom-com formula. I truly don’t know what Barry is going to do half of the time. And since Lena has entered his life I think Barry is even more concerned that his actions will hurt her.

Lena (Emily Watson) is the stand-in for ‘the hot babe’ in Happy Madison movies, where you wonder why such a beautiful woman would fall for goofy Sandler. I’m equally perplexed why Lena has it bad for Barry Egan. I think the difference is that I wholeheartedly believe that she’s enamored with Barry. Whatever clicked the first time Lena saw Barry’s picture shows in the way she is always looking and drinking in everything he’s doing. She wants to understand him, similar to the sisters, but in a way that lets him come to her (which is what Barry needs).

I do think Lena’s presence is a catalyst in Barry’s life, and he knows he can’t continue as is. Barry is so incredibly lonely and can’t reach out because of his awkwardness and deep fear of women. Everything comes to the surface when Lena arrives. 

I’m not advocating women trying to change men. That never works. I do think it’s possible that a person’s presence (doesn’t have to be romantic) can shift someone’s daily routine and outlook. It is ultimately up to that person if they want to change themselves for the better.

Another aspect of the movie that Anderson nailed for me is how he creates anxiety. The chaotic energy is maintained throughout, but there are moments when Barry’s anxiety starts to skyrocket and the audience is brought in. There’s one scene in particular when one of Barry’s sisters is grilling him in front of Lena at his workplace. Everything continues to ratchet up as Barry is literally cornered and he’s trying to find a means of escape. 

For my first Criterion experience of the year this was an interesting ride. The ending is hopeful and sappy with ‘love conquers all’ vibes, but I like it. It somehow fits and I believe that Barry and Lena are meant for each other. Oh! There’s also an amazing B-plot, but I’ll leave you to discover that gem if you choose to watch.

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