The Good: Excellent acting, Intriguing characters, Decent plot, Directoral style
The Bad: Difficult to watch for its disturbing characterization and awkwardness
The Basics: In P.T. Anderson's disturbed character study, Punch-Drunk Love, Barry Egan's constant betrayal by those around him is finally tempered by the love of a beautiful woman.
P.T. Anderson, the writer/director genius behind such films as Boogie Nights and the vastly superior Magnolia took a little bit of time off after the ordeal of making his perfect film. When he returned, it shocked many of his fans when he announced that he would be directing a movie with Adam Sandler as the lead. Some of us groaned, but the rest decided to trust Anderson; he had earned the trust with his library before this movie. Punch-Drunk Love defies every expectation one might have for an Adam Sandler movie.
Barry Egan is a small business owner of a gag prop company in California who lives a secluded life, pressured by his eight sisters. One morning, he is waiting at work when a bizarre accident occurs, depositing a harmonium in his life. That same morning, he meets Lena, a shy woman who seems strangely attracted to him. Following a torturous night for Barry where he is forced to deal with his overbearing sisters who malign him, Barry calls a telephone sex line. When the woman he talked to the night before extorts him for money and he resists, Barry is mugged and decides to follow Lena to Hawaii. As they fall in love, Barry works to trust Lena and overcome the obstacles put in his way by the villainous Dean.
The reason Punch-Drunk Love is so successful as a film is that it is not an Adam Sandler film. Let's dispense with that rumor right off the bat. This is a P.T. Anderson film, not an Adam Sandler flick. As a result, one has to dispense with certain preconceptions going into it. The first is that the movie is going to be stupid. This film is just as highbrow and thought-provoking as any of P.T. Anderson's other works. The other thing that a lot of people have trouble with is accepting that Adam Sandler is the star of this film, yet it is not funny.
The problem I ran into with seeing Punch-Drunk Love with an audience was that the mentality of the audience was "this is an Adam Sandler movie, therefore, it must be funny" view. This is especially disturbing when Barry is being tormented and chased by hoodlums; to be in a crowd of people laughing. Anderson has adeptly created a piece that utilizes Sandler in a highly dramatic role and the unfortunate thing is that too many of Sandler's supposed "fans" do not take him seriously in this endeavor. It's disappointing because here he is proving he has what it takes to actually ACT!
That is not to say the film is without humor. It is very funny in points, most notably Egan's attempts to explain how he is scamming Healthy Choice for free airline miles. It's a brilliant scheme and between Hard Eight and Punch-Drunk Love, one gets the feeling that P.T. Anderson must be quite the swindler for all the scams he illustrates in his films. The movie has moments of lightheartedness and uses Luiz Guzman as a great straightman to Sandler's heavy. There is humor.
But it's not a funny movie. It's not a comedy. Essentially, Punch-Drunk Love revolves around a character who is deeply scarred by the constant betrayals in his life. He confides in various people, all of whom betray his confidence in one form or another leading him to lie almost compulsively. Because he never receives the trust he needs from another person, Egan naturally makes it so he cannot be trusted, flat out lying about his past and his temper. Egan lashes out at a world that is constantly betraying him. From sisters who taunt him, to a brother-in-law who he tries to get help from to the phone sex woman who tries to take his money, Barry Egan is a man constantly betrayed. He becomes very empathetic and his emotional outbursts become understandable and sad. But not funny. Perhaps the laughter of the audience was from discomfort. It is uncomfortable to see such an awkward character attempting to make it through all of his obstacles.
Lena, then, becomes Egan's moral compass, someone who allows him to begin to normalize. Through his unbetrayed ability to trust Lena, Barry begins to love and, as he says, that makes him powerful. Ultimately, it's a triumphant film; it just takes a LOT of uncomfortable, heartwrenching incidents to get him there.
Adam Sandler does an amazing job at playing Barry Egan. He creates a character distinctly different from all other Sandler characters he has heretofore played. Egan is likable, somewhat intelligent, but ultimately deeply scarred emotionally. Sandler is sure to keep him multifaceted, never allowing himself to degenerate into a parody of the anger Egan expresses. It's quite an accomplishment for Sandler.
Emily Watson plays off Sandler brilliantly. Her muted smile and quiet voice create the perfect, shy counterpart for Egan. Moreover, Watson is utterly disarming to the point of being shocking when she is finally able to reveal how similar Lena is to Barry. Watson creates an unlikely screen chemistry with Sandler as well, making Punch-Drunk Love a very visually easy movie to watch.
Ultimately, much of the credit for Punch-Drunk Love must go to writer-director P.T. Anderson. Anderson once again illustrates a strong - if depressing - understanding of human nature. He manages to create a strange blend of visual images, soft music and quirky characters resulting in a movie like no other. His command of dialog is superb and his execution of this weird love story illustrates that he has the ability to do something that is emotionally epic, without being exceptionally long in presenting it. Here, Anderson packs a maximum of emotional resonance into a discrete package.
Punch-Drunk Love is not an easy movie to watch. The protagonist is tormented and teetering on the very edge of insane rage. The nice thing about the film is this is the story of what pulls him back to the socially-acceptable norm. And the answer is love. That's pretty refreshing, even if you're stuck in an audience that can only think to laugh at it.
For other movies with Philip Seymour Hoffman, please visit my reviews of:
The Ides Of March
The Invention Of Lying
Charlie Wilson’s War
Mission: Impossible III
Strangers With Candy
The 25th Hour
State And Main
For other movie reviews, please visit my Film Review Index Page for a list of movies I have reviewed organized by title!
© 2012, 2003 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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