After the success of his sophomoric feature Magnolia (1999), writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson announced that his next project would be a film starring Adam Sandler. Many obviously laughed and scoffed at this idea. For one thing, Anderson had become known for complex and sophisticated films with ensemble casts (he had also made the critically-acclaimed Boogie Nights from 1997). More importantly, Adam Sandler (as just about everybody knows) has built a reputation for playing goofy, lazy, and angst-ridden characters for kicks and giggles—not always in the most pleasant ways, mind you.
On the other hand, angst-ridden characters work for dramatic and serious pieces, too.
Inspired by the true story of David Phillips, who obtained over a million frequent flyer miles from buying thousands of dollars’ worth of pudding, Punch-Drunk Love tells the story of Barry Egan, a socially-impaired small business owner who suffers from uncontrollable fits of rage and confusing attitudes. Ridiculed by seven sisters and single, Barry’s life becomes more complicated after he contacts a phone sex line and becomes involved in a blackmailed scheme that not only affects his income, but his own personal life as well. He soon meets a mysterious woman named Lena, who turns out to be the kind of person Barry needs (and vice versa). As love blossoms, so does Barry’s need to be honest and protective, even if that means confronting and righting the mistakes he’s made as well as confessing them.
The quality and style of this film are very surrealist, quirky and sometimes dizzying, thanks in part to the mesmerizing artwork by Jeremy Blake and the equally (experimental) mesmerizing score by Jon Brion (who previously worked with Anderson on Magnolia). Blake’s artwork throughout the film is psychedelic and trippy, but, as a form of visual poetry, can suggest certain or many things. (One of the bonus features on the two-disc DVD edition shows twelve “scopitones,” featuring said artwork and clips from the film, and what they could each represent.) At times, Punch-Drunk Love feels like a Stanley Kubrick movie, with its often dark elements and situations, such as when Barry is chased by four blond brothers during a conflict, or when Barry walks into a restaurant bathroom and tears it apart. Yet, the film carries a specific and sophisticated understanding of character, conflict, and development. I admire Anderson’s use of color, lighting, and staging, as well as his emphasis and distinction of character and his choice of music (as strange as it is. Yet, it reflects who Barry is. After all, this is his story). Eventually, such aspects paint a moving and resonant picture of romance that stays with you after the credits roll.
|Barry encounters a harmonium in the street.|
Even specific props and costumes are a character in and of themselves. Case in point: The harmonium that Barry finds in the street at the beginning of the film. At certain moments, he tries to fix it and tests its sound qualities, suggesting the theme of “getting in tune and finding your voice,” according to Anderson. Other significant examples include the wardrobes that Barry and Lena wear. Throughout the film, Barry wears a blue suit, possibly suggesting a person in a cold, lonely state. Lena, on the other hand, clearly shines with her colorful dresses. I also respect the way Anderson defines his characters (specifically by their actions and by their emotions) through color and through lighting. My favorite moment in the film, perhaps, is when Barry and Lena walk down a hallway together and Barry slowly extends his hand out to her, and they eventually hold hands. It’s a brilliant and poetic image of need and accountability.
Adam Sandler is just terrific in his radical performance as Barry. Apart from his usual mindless comedies (as classic as they are), there’s a real depth and understanding in his angst and his fears that helps us identify with his struggles, his choices, and his flawed personality. Mind you, not all his choices are wise, but it’s something to see a character that really develops into a better person. Emily Watson is a glowing presence as Lena. Two years before Kate Winslet’s Clementine consistently changed her hair color in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Watson’s Lena physically embodies a bright, colorful form of heart and love that brings light and honesty to Barry’s character.
|Emily Watson and Adam Sandler|
The theme and story of the movie could be interpreted many ways. The way I look at it, for one, is that it’s the story of a socially-impaired man who thinks he’s finding love and companionship in the right places (in this case, a phone sex line), but eventually complicates his life more and makes things worse. In other words, what he thinks will give him fulfillment turns out to be a lie and a scam. The moral in this case is that things like immoral or beneficial sex do not bring true fulfillment in one’s life. Enter Lena, who, in time, represents to Barry (and to the audience) a more honest kind of love, a kind that makes Barry a better person than he ever imagined he could be. In fact, this leads Barry to say at one point, “I have so much strength in me, you have no idea. I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine.”
According to the studies of Christian pop culture analyst Craig Detweiller (in his 2008 book “Into the Dark”), is that general revelation or is it?! In other words, is that “the transformative power of screen stories” or is it?! Now, because this is an R-rated film, due to “strong language including a scene of sexual dialogue,” I’m not necessarily marking it as a means of recommendation or making any kind of endorsement for the worldviews it expresses. What I am suggesting, on the other hand, is that even a strange or often-problematic movie such as this (not to mention it’s an Adam Sandler movie) has the power to generate discussion, both cinematically and spiritually. It also has the ability to show viewers that love is complex, and that love is sometimes confusing. Yet, love can (and should) be honest, true, cared for, and respected. It is a universal message, told in a dark and strange, yet modest and unique, way. Furthermore, it’s a universal message that reminds us how purposeful and affecting it is, even in an Adam Sandler movie.
WRITER'S NOTE: UPDATED July 7, 2014
WRITER'S NOTE: UPDATED July 7, 2014