With Adam Sandler’s Funny People looming on the horizon, what better time to revisit the original tonal detour of the most consistently successful big screen comedian of his era, away from the juvenilia that made him wildly rich and famous and into the waiting bosom of a more skewed cinematic sensibility? Ergo, this dug-up review of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, first published in Entertainment Today upon the movie’s original theatrical release in October, 2002. To wit:
It seemed, from the outset, one of the more bizarre film collaborations of recent memory, the unlikely pairing of budding auteur Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) and box office goofus Adam Sandler. Throw in the fact that Anderson wrote the warped romantic comedy specifically for Sandler — and his equally unlikely love interest, Emily Watson — and you seem to have all the ingredients of a classic, drunken, late night laff-pitch session, or at the very least a bet at the expense of some glassy-eyed studio executive. But Punch-Drunk Love won Anderson acclaim and Best Director honors at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and so with its Stateside bow we’re about to find out whether audiences like chocolate in their peanut butter, if you will — whether they’re willing to accept seemingly disparate, at-odds sensibilities for the sake of new, skewed pop art.
The reality is that the film has character and loads of differentiating style, but is also a mixed bag. Anderson uses David Phillips, the Universal of California civil engineer who in real life stumbled upon a frequent flyer promotion from Healthy Choice and then exploited the offer’s loophole, purchasing $3,000 worth of pudding and racking up 1.25 frequent flyer miles, as a loose jumping-off point. Phillips here becomes Barry Egan (Sandler), a quiet, put-upon small businessman with seven sisters who harp on his (many) shortcomings and quirks. Sporting throughout the film a slightly too-tight blue suit that makes him look like the bastard offspring of Austin Powers and Wiry-Haired, Uptight Smurf, Sandler’s Barry is, as a result of this heckling and other circumstances, a beaten of a human being, a textbook case of depression and self-isolation.
Things start to change when, through one of his sisters, he meets Lena Leonard (Watson). Matters are complicated, however, by the fact that just prior to their first date, Barry phoned a sex line, and now finds himself on the receiving end of a campaign of extortion and harassment perpetrated by the operator, Elizabeth (Mary Lynn Rajskub), and her scuzzy boss, Dean Trumbell (Philip Seymour Hoffman). There… is that cookie-cutter friendly enough for you?
A crooked nose of a character comedy, in both the best and worst sense of the phrase, Punch-Drunk Love is full of idiosyncrasies — the protracted phone sex call, with its litany of involved numbers and subsequent spiraling upwards (or downwards, depending on your point-of-view) out of control is particularly hilarious, both random and brilliantly interwoven. Yet it’s also this willful artistic bent — so dazzlingly, “appropriately” on display in Anderson’s two dramatic opuses of disaffected Los Angelenos — that to me bends and distorts the film’s purpose, meaning and clarity. I can appreciate the fact that Anderson wants to branch out, and no doubt saw this in some way as an opportunity to explore a new, much “lighter” genre; Punch-Drunk Love certainly seems his most facile and intuitive film to date. (Apart from its five principal characters, most of the rest of the roles are cast with non-actors.) Yet I’m not sure if Anderson’s methods always align with his final thematic intent; the film’s opening drags tremendously, and certain editorial choices — from simple narrative juxtaposition, cuts and Jon Brion’s far-too-intrusive score — do irrevocable harm.
Sometimes the film’s precious nattering leads to revelations both beautiful and cutting, as when a nervous Barry relates to Lena an utterly banal story about a disc jockey that concludes with, “DJ Justice, man… he cuts you down to size. I laugh and laugh, even when I’m alone.” Too often, however, we get fitful lurches drained of payoff, or even psychological incisiveness. I applaud wholeheartedly the film’s heart, verve and curiosity, and welcome wherever I can find them on the screen many of the qualities Punch-Drunk Love possesses in abundance. It just didn’t stick with me, on the whole. For most other film aficionados, an enjoyment of the quirky means here will easily match or counterbalance the end product. For more casual filmgoers, however, this, alas, won’t be the start of a beautiful new relationship. (Columbia, R, 95 minutes)