Punch-Drunk Love is a thrilling, intoxicating romantic spell powered by the way people navigate the messy first steps on their journey to love.
The film hearkens back to a semi-screwball, nostalgic notion of amour (right down to the brightly colored title scenes reminiscent of Saul Bass), but does so with a decidedly weird modern spin. Naturally, that comes courtesy of the film’s writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia). In Billy Wilder’s heyday, Frequent Flyer miles and phone sex hotlines wouldn’t have worked as plot points. But Punch-Drunk Love feels like the movie Wilder would make if he were he hitting his stride today and able to include liberal, but appropriate, profanity.
But the true heart of Punch-Drunk Love beats with Anderson’s cautious direction of his lead, Adam Sandler. That Adam Sandler. All built-up buzz about Sandler finally shaking free the chains of his violent-and-funny idiot roles is not quite right. Anderson has pulled off the difficult task of subverting the star’s on-screen persona while adhering to its basic principles. Sandler’s Barry Egan is fragile, simple and prone to rage, but when he destroys something, we wince instead of laughing.
Barry often punctuates the rare insight into his life with the phrase “when I’m alone.” And despite having seven sisters, alone is what he is all the time, every day. In fact, his isolation is largely the result of those sisters’ incessant put-downs. Amid the din of voices at a family party, Barry hears only the insults directed toward him. His violent response is surprising and sad.
But it’s clear that Barry means well and has a shot at a good life. He’s got a respectable, albeit strange, job designing novelty plungers. He’s got a sharply tailored, bright blue suit. And, through random circumstance, he also has a harmonium, one that ultimately will push Barry’s orbit toward the intriguing Lena Leonard (Emily Watson). Their quick fall for each other is complicated, though, by resultant events from Barry’s rage and naïveté that threaten his life but also, more importantly, his romance with Lena.
Boogie Nights was Anderson’s flashy calling card, which he’s thankfully used to pursue more interesting notions of the human condition. The intertwining stories of Magnolia were steeped in the cosmic concept of chance. The same mojo seems equally at work in Punch-Drunk Love, albeit in a more impressive manner. Anderson the screenwriter has crafted lines that would be infinitely cheesy in another world, but fit perfectly with the unabashedly emotional one shown here.
Anderson’s direction of the plot also is impeccable. He’s second only to Martin Scorsese in masterful use of a swooping camera. And unlike the sprawling points of Magnolia, this film is economical, giving us not one, but two of the most romantic kisses in cinema within 90 minutes.
This is Sandler’s show, though, and in a film populated with great actors like Watson and Philip Seymour Hoffman, he is the standout. As Barry blossoms, so does Sandler, into an actor obviously capable of creating a character with which an audience can wholly sympathize. His plainly delivered romantic declarations are stunning and his earnestness is believable. It’s one of the best performances of the year in one of the best films of the year.