Moviedrome Redux: ‘Punch-Drunk Love’ (2002)

❉ Nick Clement presents his assessments of cinematic gems and cult oddities. 

A heartbreaking ode to Los Angeles loneliness. A troubling study of unchecked mental illness. A sweet and unlikely romance born out of our innate human nature to be accepted and loved. A transcendent stylistic experiment masquerading as a “romantic comedy.” Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliant, hypnotic, and completely consuming Punch-Drunk Love is all of those things and so much more, a deeply idiosyncratic work that has continually grabbed me ever since I had the chance to see it on the big screen 15 years ago. I’ve returned to this singularly unique and painfully funny film repeatedly throughout the years, and it never ceases to make me smile, shed a tear, and become so totally involved with the characters that I feel as if I know them by now.

Adam Sandler has never been better, will never be better, and will never have a project that will utilize him the way that Anderson so perfectly did here; he could have retired after this one. Subverting Sandler’s infamous man-child character made popular throughout the years via all of those crappy, low-brow comedies, Anderson knew you’d bring your Sandler baggage into this movie, and it’s fantastic to study how he played off Sandler’s odd charms and strange fixations as a performer. Sandler is all coiled nerves and broken mental wires, a man emotionally stunted to an alarming degree, and how this inner turmoil is conveyed by Anderson through the incessant, ADD-styled musical score by Jon Brion (complete with Shelley Duvall’s amazing rendition of “He Needs Me”) and through Robert Elswit’s lens-flare-inflected widescreen cinematography is nothing short of astonishing.

For 90 minutes, you’re inside the rocky head-space of Sandler’s Barry Egan, a loner working a non-descript job in a non-descript warehouse in the classically non-descript San Fernando Valley, and it’s as jolting to him as it is to us when he meets the love of his life, in the form of Emily Watson, as random of a romantic partner for Sandler, at least on paper, that could ever have been discussed or cast. Watson is playing a fabulously complicated character, a woman who isn’t sure of herself let alone how she feels about Barry, and through their hilarious and increasingly awkward yet hopeful courtship, you being to see how these two lost souls have finally met their match. You know you’ve found the best person you can find when you can stare into their eyes and tell them how much you want to smash their face in or bite off their nose, all in good fun of course, and then proceed to hold each other for the rest of the evening. This is a hopelessly romantic movie that also happens to have darker than usual story strands, involving a menacing villain referred to as Mattress Man, played with delicious evil relish by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who terrorizes Sandler and Watson over the phone and then in the form of some Utah-based goons who travel a few states just to meet the other end of a tire iron, in one of the film’s most memorable and jolting sequences. Be careful about which phone-sex lines you call.

But the fact that the villain of the piece is there more as a psychological tool of frustration only adds to the increasing buzziness that the film’s mood evokes; like Who is Harry Kellerman and Why is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?, I Heart Huckabees, Birdman, and other films that explore the psyches of troubled protagonists, Punch-Drunk Love has a ton to say about a ton of themes, while the restless aesthetic quality ups the anxiety level. The Criterion Collection was wise to release this one on Blu-ray, and he transfer is immaculate, boasting rich colors and terrific sound; it’s an essential purchase if you’re a fan of bewildering cinema.

This is easily the most divisive film of Anderson’s career, but for me, nothing has been this magical or surprising from him as a filmmaker, and I say that as a lover of every single one of his works, all of which would qualify as masterworks. And then there’s the small piano/harmonium that is oddly deposited in the street for Egan to find and then to obsess over; it’s as metaphorical as it is literal and I love every scene with Barry interacting with the instrument. Also of note is that this film is one of only two productions made by Revolution Studios that’s worth a damn, the other being Ridley Scott’s uncompromising combat film Black Hawk Down, which was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. Thankfully, Anderson would win Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival for his beguiling work on Punch-Drunk Love, and while the film was a box office disappointment, it’s certainly found its much deserved status as a modern cult gem. Side-note: the address that Barry Egan gives to the phone sex credit card operator is oddly similar to the location of my second to last apartment in Los Angeles!


❉ Nick Clement is a freelance writer, having contributed to Variety Magazine, Hollywood- Elsewhere, Awards Daily, Back to the Movies, and Taste of Cinema. He’s currently writing a book about the works of filmmaker Tony Scott, and co-operates the website Podcasting Them Softly.

❉ He is also a regular contributor for MovieViral.com, a site dedicated to providing the best news and analysis on viral marketing and ARG campaigns for films and other forms of entertainment.

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