"I don't freak out."—Barry Egan (Adam Sandler)
Barry Egan likes pudding.
Punch-Drunk Love seemed to please nobody when it hit theaters in 2002. Nobody, except the jury at Cannes, who awarded Paul Thomas Anderson a Best Director award for his modest film. But PTA fans stayed away from the theaters: how could you trust a comedy with Adam Sandler to be sufficiently respectable? And Sandler fans were even more frustrated: not enough poop jokes.
Let us get this out in the open first: Punch-Drunk Love is the most misunderstood American film since Eyes Wide Shut. Like Stanley Kubrick's film, it explores male identity in such an unbalancing, ironic fashion, that it is easily mistaken for what it is not. Much of this confusion is due to the presence of Adam Sandler himself. When we first meet Sandler's Barry Egan, he sits alone at a desk in the corner of a nearly empty warehouse. Here is a man who can be claustrophobic even in the widest spaces. He is hesitant, uncertain, always cringing in anticipation of an attack. And no wonder: Barry's world lies just on the edge of chaos. One morning, as he steps outside, a car loses control and launches past him, crashing off-screen with a frightening clamor. A cab abruptly stops in front of him, drops off a harmonium, and screeches off
Did it all happen? There is glass and debris in the street, but only Barry as a witness. And Barry is not so reliable as he seems at first glance. He stumbles over language, confusing "food" with "good" and "back" with "Jack." He hears music in his head. He collects pudding, ostensibly part of a scheme to accumulate frequent-flyer miles in a Healthy Choice promotion. But once, when he looks over to the pudding, he hears it whisper to him, "Barry, come here."
And Barry has a hidden, desperate urge to violence. Taunted by his cadre of seven sisters, who incessantly question his masculinity, he lashes out, smashing whatever is nearby. Barry knows he has a problem. He tells a friend, "I don't like myself sometimes." He cries for no reason.
You see, Barry Egan is a schizophrenic. More precisely, he seems to suffer from schizoaffective disorder, from the mood swings (depression to delicate dancing in the supermarket aisles) to the visual and auditory hallucinations. Paul Thomas Anderson places us in Barry's head, shifting between moments of his experience with eerie, abstract images and ambient music (courtesy of artist Jeremy Blake and composer Jon Brion). This synesthetic effect is part of Barry's mental state, as seen in the colored lens flares that float through seemingly "normal" scenes in the film, the strange harmonium theme (like some hallucinatory circus) that Barry repeats to himself—as if he can hear the film's soundtrack in his head.
The strangest thing about Punch-Drunk Love though is not that this tale of a functioning schizophrenic is a tragedy or even some heartwarming television drama. It is that Paul Thomas Anderson has crafted a romantic comedy. Barry Egan may be only a few steps away from Adam Sandler's usual retarded-manchild movie persona, but he is entirely sympathetic. He is a man who is only functional because the rest of the world is even madder than he is. His seven sisters psychologically abuse him. His world is full of novelty plungers, phone sex gangsters, insane marketing promotions. Nobody else seems to notice, except perhaps Barry, who simply wants to be left alone.
Or at least, he needs somebody who understands. Enter Lena (Emily Watson). Lena is clearly another lost soul, someone capable of balancing the chaos within Barry's heart. How else could you explain romantic dialogue like this: "I'm looking at your face and I just want to smash it. I just want to fucking smash it with a sledgehammer and squeeze it. You're so pretty."
In any other situation, Barry's pathological confusion between sexuality and violence might be frightening. But Lena is up to the challenge and responds, "I want to chew your face, and I want to scoop out your eyes, and I want to eat them and chew them and suck on them."
And now you are asking, this is a comedy? Yes, Punch-Drunk Love is emotionally upbeat, engaging, and powerful. Barry's quest for love leads him through the fire, across an ocean, past an evil phone sex scam led by Philip Seymour Hoffman, through the gauntlet of his brutal sisters, and into the arms of love. It is triumphant, but always a triumph tinged with a sad irony. When Barry races to an impulsive Hawaiian tryst with Lena, we hear Shelley Duvall singing that curious romantic song from Robert Altman's Popeye, "He Needs Me." This is love, like the cartoon Popeye and Olive Oyl, it is a love that bends the rules of the natural world. The surreal tone of the film—strong colors, abstracted environments—transforms this aimless, schizophrenic character and his chaotic world into something breezy and lighthearted, truly comic in the classic sense. No wonder this is called Punch-Drunk Love: only a director as skilled as Paul Thomas Anderson could turn psychological trauma into romance. And perhaps in doing so, he reveals something unexpected about the very nature of love.
Of course, the success of such cinematic alchemy hinges on Barry Egan's ability to hold the sympathy of the audience even through his obvious psychological defects. Adam Sandler is a revelation here, to a certain extent. He gives a surprisingly understated performance as Barry, and credit is due for the risk he takes here in revealing a certain vulnerability that is usually lacking in his other films. But I suspect as much of the credit here should be given to Paul Thomas Anderson's direction. Sandler is an actor, at least at this stage in his career, with a fairly limited range, and Barry Egan is, as noted above, a more realistic variation on his standard comic character. PTA similarly restrains his other performers, holding his usual ensemble favorites Philip Seymour Hoffman and Luis Guzman (as Barry's business partner) back from any emotional extremes. The only key gap in the script is Emily Watson's Lena, who remains somewhat of a cipher. What sort of trauma hides in her past that makes her so receptive and sympathetic toward Barry? There is a shyness, a hesitancy, about Lena, that suggests she was once much like Barry, but we find out too little about it.
Or perhaps that is PTA's intention. Punch-Drunk Love leaves some of its secrets at arm's length. This is a poem of a film, not prose. Each sound, each image is carefully constructed to create a maximum aesthetic effect while stubbornly resisting giving away too much. Paul Thomas Anderson, after bravura performances in his three previous, sprawling films, proves with this tiny, polished gem, that he is the most exciting American director of this generation. Here is an artist in such command of his form that he can pretty much do anything.
Unfortunately, like Stanley Kubrick, Anderson's ability to reconfigure genres makes his films damned hard to market. Columbia squeezes a tiny Superbit logo on the packaging for Punch-Drunk Love. Like their recent release of Adaptation, they seem unsure about this film. Hmm, it has Adam Sandler in it, but are the manly men to whom we market Superbit going to like this movie? Certainly, a film like Punch-Drunk Love can benefit from the added audio and video attention. Paul Thomas Anderson puts much effort into the film's color palette (again, like Eyes Wide Shut), particularly his use of reds and blues to mark the characters. The ambient soundscape of the film, with its subtle mix of voices, music, and noise, needs the clarity Superbit can provide. Perhaps Sony is turning a corner here, using Superbit not as a marketing tool, but because the film in question actually needs the added attention.
Of course, Sony squeezes the extra material on a second disc. "Blossoms and Blood" is a weird, compressed version of the feature, assembled from deleted scenes and alternate takes, originally sent out to critics during awards season. This is Barry's version of the movie, with the darker moments blurred, hidden behind a wash of color and static, with only the romantic moments remaining clear. Turn on the Korean subtitles (your only subtitle choice) for an even more schizophrenic experience. Even better, point up with your DVD remote and watch all the extras on this disc—"Blossoms and Blood," two additional deleted scenes, a dozen Scopitones (PTA playing with an experimental cinematic genre popular in the 1960s), Jeremy Blake's abstract art, and a "Mattress Man" commercial (featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman)—in random order. It only runs about 34 minutes (not much to warrant an entire separate disc), but it is a serious head trip. The experimental nature of all of this is exactly why audiences did not know what to make of Paul Thomas Anderson's strange little movie the first time around.
Punch-Drunk Love is a film which no plot summary or description can really capture. Like a poem, much of its power is in its rhythm. Paul Thomas Anderson transforms a pathetic victim of bad circumstances and worse brain chemistry into a romantic role model for all those disaffected souls who wander the Earth in search of love. A thin and abstract script, plus Adam Sandler, plus the sort of artsy touch that harkens back to experimental cinema of days gone by—and through some alchemical magic, Punch-Drunk Love becomes one of the most modest, touching, and intense films you are likely to see this year. Give it a chance, and let Barry Egan's special madness affect you.
Paul Thomas Anderson is acquitted with the blessings of this court. Barry Egan is sent for therapy and medication. Sony is released for finally using Superbit on the side of Good.
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