Punch-Drunk Love (2002), directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Punch-Drunk Love is, without question, the best film in which Adam Sandler has ever participated.
I’d be willing to bet that distinction will persist unaltered for the remainder of his career. I mean, I guess there’s always the chance for a curve ball like Funny People (which was, despite being imperfect, a really solid effort for all associated parties) to come dangerously close to proving me wrong, but with fare like Jack & Jill coming down the pike, I’m really not worried.
Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, co-starring a few of the recurring players from his usual cinematic troupe, like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Luis Guzman, as well as an extraordinary Emily Watson, it is a remarkably strange, small film, but mesmerizing and beautiful all the same.
Sandler stars as Barry Egan, a shut-in and small business owner who gets caught up in an extortion scheme after calling up a phone sex line, and who also is on the verge of capitalizing on the grandest of all loopholes in a promotional campaign involving frequent flyer miles awarded for purchases of various Healthy Choice products (his primary focus being pudding).
In the midst of all that, however, is where the movie marks its greatest departure for Adam Sandler (and, to be fair, Paul Thomas Anderson as well). That is in the bumbling, socially therapeutic relationship that develops between his character and Lena (Watson), a co-worker of his sister’s whom Barry meets in the first scene of the film. This sister, one of seven, is as imperious and assaultive as the rest of them, and draws out of Barry towards the end of the film an enraged dismissal and rebuttal so satisfying, it’s well worth enduring her bullshit to experience.
All of Barry’s sisters are almost cartoonishly overbearing, yet remain grounded due to flourishes of undeniable truth in their behavior and a degree of antisocial posturing constantly reaffirmed by each other’s concurrent antics. When Barry shatters the glass doors at a family gathering early on in the movie, despite bewilderment and condemnation from all present, we sympathize with the seemingly spontaneous expression of destructive fury. I know I do, anyway.
In fact, one of the joys for me in watching Punch-Drunk Love is how beautifully and carefully it sets up a series of emotional payoffs, fully redemptive and electrifying, to punctuate the piling on of misfortune and manipulation Barry is subjected to throughout the film’s establishing passages.
During his second encounter with Hoffman’s henchmen — the blonde brothers — he lashes out in self-defense in maybe the most uplifting display of rage-induced combative excess since Goku exploded with golden light for the first time on the planet Namek. I may have said too much.
The score of the movie (by Jon Brion) is delicate and whimsical, perfectly measured, and complements the visual style with holistic precision. The color palette Paul Thomas Anderson uses is rich and bold, consisting of bright reds and blues and whites, and the blurry transitional shots of splotches of color and intermingling hues are a delightful affectation.
But without Adam Sandler, it simply wouldn’t be on this level of functionality. He brings such an earnestness and unconventional, completely surprising depth to the material that it’s legitimately infuriating to think of the work he’s done and continues to do elsewhere.
And now, a question for Sandler: Why, man?
You’re capable of actual greatness! Stop resigning yourself to maladroit excursions in the name of inexpensive assembly and lucrative returns!