(director/writer: Paul Thomas Anderson; cinematographer: Robert Elswit; editor: Leslie Jones; music: Jon Brion; cast: Adam Sandler (Barry Egan), Emily Watson (Lena Leonard), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Dean Trumbell), Luis Guzmán (Lance), Mary Lynn Rajskub (Elizabeth), Ashley Clark (Phone sex girl, Georgia), Julie Hermelin (Kathleen), Robert Smigel (Walter, Dentist); Runtime: 95; MPAA Rating: R; producers: JoAnne Sellar/Daniel Lupi/Paul Thomas Anderson; Columbia; 2002)

I couldn’t ask any more from a mainstream romantic comedy than what I got from Punch-Drunk Love…

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

I couldn’t ask any more from a mainstream romantic comedy than what I got from Punch-Drunk Love, a surprisingly uplifting gift provided by director/writer Paul Thomas Anderson (“Magnolia“/”Boogie Nights“/”Hard Eight“). It’s so difficult to film comedies and relationship stories, and here everything works so well without anything being forced. Anderson won Best Director at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, and the film was the focus piece at the recent New York Film Festival. It’s a stunningly beautiful work thanks to the cinematography of Robert Elswit and his splendid use of imaginative tracking shots, to Jon Brion credit must be given for his percussive soundtrack which sets such a bouncy mood, and to Jeremy Blake credit is deservedly given for his digitally generated plasma screen art which helps keep the film moving along even when there are pauses between scenes. The film seemed to always be in perpetual motion and always dazzled with its florid colors. It’s a precisely detailed film where the director is hip to the characters’ nuances and the set color schemes and the unusual effects of stage lighting, so even a grocery store can look surreal; it’s a wonderfully absurd comedy textured with a dash of class and a splattering of style and an element of Jacques Rivette-like surrealism (there always seems to be some music in the air that the main characters seem to be tuned into). To add to the impish spirit of the film, there’s an ambitious warehouse worker lurking in the story’s background who has a constantly puzzled expression and has been given the odd name for a Hispanic of Lance (Guzman). Lance manages to be funny without even cracking one joke or trying to be funny. While Barry adds to the film’s oddity as he does a soft shoe dance number in a grocery store for no particular reason. At other times, one can hear Shelly Duvall sing Harry Nilsson’s “He Needs Me” from the “Popeye” soundtrack at unexpected moments in the film. In otherwords, be prepared to expect anything dropped down here from the heavens. And, that’s that!

In its most twisted and amusing way, Punch-Drunk Love is a story about falling in love between unlikely suitors. Anderson does not care a lick if the romance depicted makes sense or not. It actually doesn’t make sense, but that didn’t bother me in the least. In my way of looking at things, romances don’t have to make sense to succeed.

“Punch-Drunk” pays homage to the old comedy masters and the Hollywood musicals of its “golden age” during the 1940s and 1950s, and works as a charmer yearning for the giddy ‘old days’ when the better films could be more readily accepted for just being escapist and magical and gay. The film’s comedy is drawn from the visuals rather than from the antics of popular comic star Adam Sandler (“The Waterboy“/”Mr. Deeds“), who percolates with fun as the straightman to Anderson and his yummy set designs. Sandler is seen as comical through the prop of his attention-getting blue suit and in his forlorn flustered looks and in his yeoman attempts to keep his character’s emotions in line, as this proves to be a dramatic role that requires acting from someone as unlikely as him. The shock to some might be, that he can actually act and bring a perspective to his role. He succeeds in this film written with him in mind, as he intuitively portrays his role as a well-conceived character study.

The mood set by Anderson is conducive to a cerebral comedy of the likes of a Jacques Tati or a Buster Keaton and not the lowbrow pratfalls of the usual Adam Sandler formulaic film character. It’s set somewhere in the San Fernando Valley section of California, a bland urban sprawl environment consisting of warehouses, garages and car lots; and, where the protagonist has a neat but culturally-deprived townhouse apartment in Sherman Oaks. Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) plays a hardworking, introverted, emotionally disturbed, small business owner selling customized deluxe wholesale toilet plungers and assorted other bathroom supplies while operating out of a spacious and dreary warehouse. The nice guy, mild-mannered bachelor is saddled with seven dominating sisters who constantly berate him and unmercifully tease him. He has other problems to deal with; such as, anger-management problems, a severe case of shyness around women, pent up emotional problems that keep him talking to himself, and anxiety problems that hamper his ability to lead an active social life. Everything revolves around his inability to function socially, yet he’s able to do reasonably well in business. He’s a loser but he’s no sniveling coward, and he’s capable of fighting back and showing that he can also get what he wants on occasions. His personality varies from raging temper tantrums to one of a passive zombie-like look, as if he’s lost in a maze (he gets lost in a hallway in one hilarious scene). Somehow he manages to have good manners and seem presentable, as even he’s surprised at how well he’s doing in business.

The film opens with an unexpected loud bang from an early-morning van crash that causes Barry to wince, but still he manages to ignore it. What follows is a Checker Cab dumping a harmonium out on the edge of a driveway near Barry’s warehouse. The harmonium is retrieved by him and patched up on its sides with masking tape (wounded like him!) and later becomes a source of comfort to the nonmusical bathroom supplier, as the frustrated loner and admitted cry baby plays it as if he were fondling a woman. Barry, dressed in a spanking new loud blue suit which could have been lifted off the set of one of those Jerry Lewis comedies from the 1950s, is busy this morning planning to take advantage of a promotional offer by Healthy Choice to collect enough coupons from its puddings so he can gain a free airline frequent-flyer pass. The oddity of him collecting those coupons, is that Barry has never flown on a plane and expresses no desire to do so. This part of the story is based on the true case of a California professor at UC Davis and a civil engineer, David Phillips, who, by reading the fine print on a promotional coupon, uncovered a loophole and amassed over a million frequent-flyer miles by purchasing only $3,000 worth of Healthy Choice pudding. Anderson purchased the rights to Phillip’s story. Obviously, Anderson changed almost everything to fit it into his own creative but underwritten story (in this case being underwritten is good).

Barry is hounded by his sisters to attend his oldest sister Elizabeth’s (Mary Lynn Rajskub) home birthday celebration, as she plans to introduce him to an attractive English work colleague, Lena Leonard (Emily Watson). She’s someone who’s blonde, sweet, together and an unlikely candidate to ever fall for a loser like him–even if she’s also lonely. But she does, and no matter how bizarre he acts she hangs onto him. This romance spoofs those old-fashioned studio lightweight musical ones, whereby she doesn’t seem to be a real person but a romantic convention (except she’s so well played by the gifted Ms. Watson, that I don’t mind her character being so empty). Her character is perceived as being the ideal woman who is there only for Barry. While his character is very real and well-drawn out and is easily identifiable with the audience, as he proves to be likable, comical, vulnerable, explosive, and easily humiliated.

The night before Barry met Lena on a whim, he calls for a phone-sex service and gets hustled. When Barry cancels his credit card to stop the phony charges, the self-righteous phone-sex entrepreneur, Dean (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a foul-mouthed and sleazy mattress store owner from Provo, Utah, sends four blond brothers (real brothers, the Stevens boys-David/Mike D./ Jim/Nate) to get the money. These Mormon thugs beat him up and get the money owed them by forcing him to go to an A.T.M. window, and they justify their bosses’ extortion scheme and their violence by calling him a pervert.

This sets the wheels in motion for Barry to try and change his life and pursue love, as he flies at a moment’s notice to a perceived romantic holiday spot in Hawaii to meet Lena. She’s there on a business trip (don’t ask what’s her business!). Barry ends up vacationing with her on the lovely beach spots middle-class couples dream about as an ideal honeymoon or second honeymoon choice. On his return home, Lena is injured by the thugs who slam their pick-up into his car and he immediately travels to Utah to settle scores with the crooked Dean. This turns into a comical shouting match. All the while there’s comedy in every scene. But the viewer is also caught up in the melodramatics and might be caught rooting for boy to get girl. It’s a slithering old-fashioned film, except for the modern-day cursing and stressful mood swings caused by urban life and the psychological damage caused by the breakdown of the family. “Punch-Drunk Love” is a good title for such an off-kilter comedy romance tale. The cast has Anderson regulars Luis Guzmán and Philip Seymour Hoffman in minor parts and is filled with nonprofessionals, including all but one of the women (Ms. Rajskub is the only pro) who play Barry’s sisters. But if you don’t like Sandler, then there’s little chance of liking this audacious, daring, and technically superior crafted Anderson film. Sandler dominates every scene and the wacky movie depends solely on him as to getting over with the audience. Sandler is the lovable doofus who must connect with the viewer. The film sinks or swims on his performance, even if he gets great support from the rest of this talented professional and nonprofessional cast and the director brings his tremendous skills to play by providing such an uncompromising and serendipitous story and such a stylishly aesthetic visual feast of a film. Sandler brings depth to his characterization and effortlessly operates at full throttle, bringing out his dark side which hides behind a cheery bland exterior. He brings zeal to his love-starved man-child persona, and rewards the innovative young filmmaker for his fate in him with a first-class performance.

Punch-Drunk Love Poster