Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Written by Paul Thomas Anderson
There’s something about films like Punch-Drunk Love that can leave you feeling faintly bloated – not quite to the extent of a three-course meal; those sort of delicacies are saved for the epics (Ben Hur, anyone?), but more like an overflowing tank of water or speakers turned up past their limit. It has a frustrating tendency to push everything one step further than necessary, resulting in a production lasting little more than ninety minutes, but feeling closer to nine-hundred.
Adam Sandler is Barry Egan, an emotionally strained novelty toilet plunger salesman with suppressed dreams of making something of himself. His domineering sisters, of whom he has seven, appear to be the primary source of his obvious psychological trauma and infrequently violent episodes. A desperately lonely individual, Barry spends most of his spare time collecting free air miles from a pudding box promotion and phoning up sex lines just for the conversation. However, his humdrum and solitary existence takes an unexpected turn in the form of three idiosyncrasies – the extortion of the woman on the other end of the call; the inexplicable circumstances with which a harmonium comes into his hands; and the curious Lena Leonard’s (Emily Watson) apparent attraction to him.
Perhaps the unusual premise is the motive for Punch-Drunk Love’s more experimental moments. It is by no means conventional, and to argue otherwise would put it on a par with its second-rate ‘chick-flick’ cousins, an unfair judgement of character. The shooting is more evocative, the performances more substantial, the story more eccentric. Sandler proves he has aptitude beyond his daft comedy roles of the 90s, handling a dubiously autistic character (Barry can tell when he’s said the wrong thing, but can’t fathom how to put it right, culminating in his vehement episodes) with impressive maturity. Considering his far from receptive personality, it’s surprisingly easy to connect with Barry, not always on a social level, but on a personal one: we can be caught up in his anxiety and despondency, which is arguably the most important factor of any film.
Nevertheless, the film is not without its problems. In its yearning for eccentricity, it intermittently strays from the avant-garde into the downright ridiculous. The bizarre pseudo-psychedelic interlude that makes numerous indiscriminate appearances throughout bears no relevance to anything other than to swell the already engorged story, and the oddly-paced scenes of quick-fire dialogue fight to outdo the booming underlying score like an internal aural war. Whilst the sometimes blackly comic exchanges, the strikingly intimate close-ups and use of lens flare and colours (namely blues and purples) are undoubtedly dazzling, many scenes – especially in the first half of the film – are excessively alienating. It drowns us in dialogue and intercuts claustrophobic scenes at random points in an attempt at realism which, when juxtaposed with the rest of the film, seems out of place.
Often, the film feels like an exercise for PTA’s tentative exploits as opposed to the candid, hearty romance that it’s marketed as, with visuals that go from one extreme to another in a disjointed and unattractive fashion and a story that suspends naturalism at the best of times. It can feel like a vehicle for its director and a showcase of its lead actor’s unexpected hidden depths that simply happens to have affectionate undertones, rather than vice versa. That said, there are moments of iridescent splendour – including the most famous shot of the two silhouettes embracing – that work to pull it out of the hole it digs for itself.
Perhaps it tries a little too hard to be quirky, and maybe it is slightly less than the sum of its parts, but it is irrefutable that Punch-Drunk Love, carried on the rock-hard shoulders of Adam Sandler in his most riveting performance, sparks genuine laughter and oozes endearing charm. If you can get past its uneven and nauseating drawbacks, there is much to be salvaged from a film that’s nearly as troubled as its protagonist.