Punch-Drunk Love (2002) / Drama-Comedy

MPAA Rated: R for strong language including a scene of sexual dialogue
Running Time: 95 min.

Cast: Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Luis Guzman
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Screenplay: Paul Thomas Anderson
Review published October 11, 2002

I came out of watching Punch-Drunk Love with a mixture of feelings, some of which I may never sort out. They are mixed in part because it is easily the best work in Adam Sandler's (Little Nicky, Big Daddy) not-too-varied career, but the film as a whole, while undeniably brilliantly directed, is my least favorite among Paul Thomas Anderson's films.

 I've seen others knock P.T.'s previous work like Boogie Nights and Magnolia claiming they were pretentious films, and while I disagree mightily in both cases, I cannot defend Punch-Drunk Love as strongly. Part of this is because Anderson is so talented a director that he knows how to use the score and camera movement to evoke feelings in the audience, and he pulls the strings of your emotions, and with cocky arrogance doesn't mind that we know full well we are being manipulated. If pretentiousness is evidenced by showy displays, it also means that the director is confident that he has the skill necessary to pull off what he wants when he wants to. P.T. Anderson has the skill, and he knows it.

Unlike Anderson's previous works, Punch-Drunk Love only revolves around one main character, Barry Egan, played by Adam Sandler. Sandler is a businessman with certain personal issues that make him very unhappy. He is socially inept and doesn't get out much by choice, and his ability to control his mood is tenuous at best, frequently resulting in an outburst of insults, destructive vandalism, or uncontrollable sobbing. He wants to express himself, but years of ridicule and teasing from his seven sisters has resulted in long-term psychological problems, which Barry has recognized and now he seeks professional help. Having no real desire to take the initiative and get a shrink, Barry has a notion to call a phone sex company because they offer confidentiality and anonymity. However, this was a mistake, as the woman he chats with attempts to extort money from him, claiming that his life will be hell if he doesn't send her more.

Meanwhile, Barry meets Lena (Watson, Red Dragon), a friend of his sister and the two make an odd couple, but oddly they work well together because, unlike his sisters who taunt him about everything, Lena is willing to accept him for all of his flaws. She likes to travel, which seems fortuitous because Barry has been saving up Healthy Choice pudding proofs-of-purchase to rack up frequent flyer miles due to a loophole in their rules that makes them scandalously cheap.

As you can tell from the plot summation, Punch-Drunk Love is a very complex film, not easily absorbed with full understanding as to its intent or meaning. Some people will find it quite satisfying, drawing up their own meanings and perspectives in finding something to relate to. Others will find the film frustrating, as the film doesn't provide an easy comfort level, always seemingly on the edge of going somewhere but we're never sure what. Anderson's sense of music as an instrument to create mood is very evident here, perhaps a little too much, as he blends in beautiful music when Barry is feeling love or happiness, and discordant cacophony when his mind is perplexed with frustration, fear or anxiety. Such implementation will divide viewers between those who find it too arty and pompous and those who think it brilliant and ingenious. My personal take is a little of both, finding the boldness and effectiveness intriguing, yet wishing Anderson employed much more subtlety to it, as the obviousness of it pulls us out of the story to instead reflect on Anderson's technique, adding to the feeling of him as a filmmaker with pretense.

Punch-Drunk Love is full of so many rich elements and well-developed subtexts, that with only some minor tweaking here and there, it would have been a great film. Instead it is ultimately one of those films that has great moments, terrific performances and profound meanings but in the end is somehow unsatisfying. I'd recommend this film wholeheartedly to the art-house film crowd, fans of Anderson, and also fans of Adam Sandler who maintain that he could be a fine actor if he weren't pigeonholed into making dumb comedies. I'd also recommend this, but with some reservation, to those who enjoy quirky romantic comedies, off-beat cult films, and those who like foreign, particularly French cinema, with multi-textured storylines whose meanings aren't always evident. Last but not least, if you are going to watch this because Sandler's dumb comedies make you laugh and want to see more, I would spare you the frustration and recommend you stay away from Punch-Drunk Love.

As good as Sandler's performance is, it's Anderson is the real star here. Hopefully he won't make it so ostentatiously evident in the future..

Qwipster's rating:

2002 Vince Leo