Overview: An emotionally unstable man (Adam Sandler) falls in love while dealing with phone sex operators who tried to swindle him. Columbia Pictures; 2002; Rated R; 95 Minutes
Andersonian: This was the first Paul Thomas Anderson film I ever saw, and for a long time I thought I really loved it. It probably helped that I wasn’t yet aware of the rest of his filmography. Punch-Drunk Love can’t help but feel slight when stacked up against There Will Be Blood and The Master. Knowing what Anderson is capable of as a filmmaker kind of cuts this film off at the knees. It’s a small film, so small that it seems designed to resonate only for the central characters. It bears plenty of Anderson’s signature style, but none of his signature substance; it’s hard to connect this film to lofty (and hubristic) American ideals, for example. It just seems out of place with the rest of Anderson’s filmography.
Channeling Sandler: Perhaps that isn’t fair to the film. After all, Punch-Drunk Love has plenty of unique merits, chief among them being Adam Sandler. Sandler’s performance here is all the evidence you need that directors are to blame for “bad” performances more often than not. His character, Barry Egan, is prone to emotional outbursts, but they never come off as crude or broad. He bears more than a little resemblance to Sandler’s “manchild” persona, but Anderson draws a deep sadness out of everything Sandler does. Anderson smartly declines to build up to these outbursts, so when they happen they’re just as surprising to the audience as they are to the characters, including Barry. He also doesn’t emphasize their consequences unto themselves; in other words, the things that Barry destroys aren’t the subject of reaction as much as Barry himself is. There’s a uselessness to his rage, which makes him seem all the more pathetic. Sandler is shockingly good here, and you have to wonder, had the film been a bigger success, if his career might have gone down a slightly different path.
The Look (and Sound) of Love: Anderson is heralded for, among other things, his extraordinary images, but Punch-Drunk Love is far more interested in sound. Composer Jon Brion’s score is overwhelming, sometimes enveloping the dialogue. In fact, the film probably works just as well (if not better) if the dialogue is removed and the music takes center stage. It matches the film’s rhythms so precisely that it’s comical in places. Of course, Anderson’s visual flair is still present. He manages to give even relatively small spaces a grand sweep. It wouldn’t be one of his films without long takes, and the technique is used to great effect early on, when a scene of Barry calling a phone sex line becomes surprisingly tense and anxious. It may seem alien at first glance, but if you look closely enough you’ll see that it’s an Anderson film through and through.
Wrap-Up: It’s really not fair to compare Punch-Drunk Love to Paul Thomas Anderson’s other films. It might seem thin in comparison, but that’s precisely what makes it such an important part of his canon. It forces you to reconsider the rest of his filmography, and it’s a very funny and sweet film to boot.