Burnt out from making the personal, sprawling epic that was Magnolia (1999), Paul Thomas Anderson decided to make an Adam Sandler romantic comedy as his next project. He was a big fan of the popular comedian and wrote a film specifically for him. On the surface, the character Sandler plays in Punch-Drunk Love (2002) appears to be one of his trademark man-children prone to angry outbursts, but Anderson gets him to dig deeper than he had ever gone before in a physical portrayal that evokes legendary silent film comedians like Buster Keaton or Jacques Tati. Unfortunately, Sandler’s fanbase was not interested in seeing him starring in an art house film and neither did mainstream audiences as Punch-Drunk did not even make back its modest $25 million budget. It did, however, garner widespread praise and Anderson won the prestigious Best Director award at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival. More importantly, it proved to be an important game changer for the filmmaker who began to eschew the flashier camerawork of his earlier films for a more formal approach and an emphasis on character over plot, which has resulted in more challenging fare.
Barry Egan (Sandler) is a timid salesman that supplies hotels with bathroom plungers. The first shot is of him sitting at a messy desk in the corner of an otherwise featureless room, which visually establishes his isolation. He goes outside and witnesses two seemingly random acts: a spectacular car accident immediately followed by a taxi cab dropping off a harmonium right in front of him and driving away.
Barry is a meek introvert that gets a panic attack after meeting a good-looking woman named Lena Leonard (Emily Watson) for the first time. This isn’t surprising when we see his family dynamic: he is the only brother among seven sisters, all of whom talk loudly over each other and boss him around. At work, they interrupt him with incessant phone calls and insult him. Barry deals with his anger by either spontaneously bursting into tears or exploding into sudden outbursts of violence, like at a party with his siblings where their persistent insults result in him smashing two glass patio doors. The kind of verbal abuse that he endures on a constant basis would drive anyone crazy.
To cope with his loneliness, Barry calls a phone sex line that proceeds to use his personal information to extort money from him. This scene is uncomfortable because Anderson utilizes long takes that linger on Barry’s increasingly awkward conversation with a phone sex worker. When she calls back the next day asking for more money, Anderson dwells on Barry’s nervousness as he rebuffs her.
Barry also discovers a loophole in a contest wherein he spends $3,000 on pudding to get a million frequent flyer miles. These seemingly random, abstract events dovetail into the most significant episode in Barry’s life: meeting Lena. Both the frequent flyer miles and his relationship with her provide a respite from his banal daily existence. His whole world begins to change. Welcome to a Paul Thomas Anderson romantic comedy.
Adam Sandler takes his trademark innocent-naïf-prone-to-sudden-bursts-of-violence character and creates a fascinating, new variation on it. Barry internalizes everything as he tries, desperately, to control his world. He seems to suffer from an acute case of agoraphobia and constantly looks uncomfortable. Anderson simulates this feeling by punctuating moments of silence with sudden, jarring blasts of sound. It is the presence of Lena who provides Barry with the calm and love that he so badly needs. Sandler’s performance is a revelation as he taps into an unseen side of his on-screen persona in a refreshingly abstract way. He displays an incredible amount of vulnerability as evident in the scene where he confesses to his brother-in-law dentist that he doesn’t like himself and has no one to talk to about his feelings. The scene ends with Barry breaking down and crying that is simultaneously hilarious in its suddenness and heartbreaking as well.
Known more for doing intense, emotionally-wrenching dramas like Breaking the Waves (1996) and Angela’s Ashes (1999), Emily Watson also shifts gears as the adorable Lena. Not only is her character’s vibrant red dress a nice visual contrast to Barry’s blue suit, but her large, expressive eyes are a lovely match for his sensitive face. She senses his need for human connection and a sweet disposition under his nervous façade. She is able to reach the romantic side that is buried under all the neuroses. They are an engaging couple and the scenes between them – especially the lush, atmospheric ones in Hawaii – have a romantic intimacy to them. Lena is a bit of an enigma. We don’t really know much about her except that she loves Barry and that is enough.
It is great to see someone of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s caliber go toe-to-toe with Sandler in an amusing shouting match they have over the phone and then the eventual face-to-face confrontation towards the end of the film. They each have their own distinctive acting styles and it is fascinating to see them collide and watch the sparks fly as a result. Hoffman’s arrogant blowhard is a one-note character but that’s kind of the point. His sole purpose is to be Barry’s antagonist, the roadblock to his happiness.
Punch-Drunk Love is akin to a Technicolor Jacques Tati film – albeit starring Adam Sandler. Barry, with his ubiquitous bright blue suit and exaggerated physical mannerisms, echoes silent comedians, like Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd. Barry isn’t the most articulate guy and relies on his actions and his facial expressions to convey his feelings. There is a scene where Barry dances up and down a grocery aisle in a wonderful expression of pure happiness. It’s a thrilling cinematic moment that is an absolute joy to watch. Anderson contrasts Barry and Lena’s bland, minimalistic furnished apartments with the vibrant look of Hawaii that brings the film vividly to life.
The stunning visuals are enhanced by long-time Anderson composer Jon Brion’s discordant score that during the first half of the film mirror’s Barry’s chaotic life. The experimental music calms down and takes on a more conventional, romantic tone with Lena’s presence, reinforcing the calming effect she has on him. Punch-Drunk Love is Anderson at his most romantic and this is summed up best when Barry decides to go to Hawaii to be with Lena and over the soundtrack he plays the sweet ballad, “He Needs Me” from Robert Altman’s Popeye (1980). Barry finally stops being such a doormat and asserts himself. This sequence swells with emotion as Barry embraces his romantic side. The rather, child-like innocent vibe of this song as sung by Shelley Duvall perfectly encapsulates the romance between Barry and Lena.
While editing Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson was watching several Adam Sandler comedies and thought, “I want some of that. How do I do that?” He had always been fan of the comedian and wanted to work with him. To prepare for writing a comedy, Anderson did a short stint as a writer for Saturday Night Live. In 2000, Time magazine published an article about a University of California civil engineer named David Phillips who uncovered a loophole of sorts in a frequent flyer promotion by accumulating 1.25 million miles by spending $3,000 on 12,150 cups of Healthy Choice pudding. Anderson read the article and was intrigued. He met Phillips and optioned the rights to his story.
When the filmmaker set out to write the screenplay he put a picture of Emily Watson next to one of Sandler and thought they looked good together. Anderson incorporated elements from his own life. Like Barry, he came from a large family – three siblings and four half-siblings – and was also prone to temper tantrums. He wrote the script in four months.
Anderson met with Sandler on the set of Little Nicky (2000) and asked him if he wanted to work together on a film. Sandler said in an interview, “I play a role he wrote for me that I thought was a great part. I thought it was a challenge for me to do, but I also thought I could actually do it.” Anderson created the role of Lena for Emily Watson. As luck would have it, she wanted a change from the heavy dramas she was appearing in, like Angela’s Ashes. He met with her and asked what she wanted to do next without telling her that he had already written a part for her. Both her and Sandler were nervous about meeting each other but when they did the two actors got along well.
Burnt out from making such a lengthy, complex film like Magnolia, Anderson wanted to make a 90-minute romantic comedy. The film’s producer JoAnne Sellar said that Anderson was looking to change his approach to filmmaking: “The challenge was to create something different by taking a more intuitive, uncharted approach than on our previous films.” To this end, after casting the major speaking parts, he told his casting director Cassandra Kulukundis to fill out the remaining roles with non-actors. This was particularly important for Barry’s sisters: “Paul didn’t want to hire actors because he wanted to capture the raw awkwardness of family where people nag and talk over each other and don’t wait for their cues.” She found an actual family to portray Barry’s and so of the seven sisters six are non-actors and four are related.
To give the cast and crew an indication of the look and tone he was going for, Anderson screened Ernie Kovacs short films, the Richard Lester Beatles film Help! (1965) and the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film Carefree (1938). According to cinematographer Robert Elswit, the look of Punch-Drunk Love was inspired by Jean-Luc Godard’s early color films, specifically A Woman is a Woman (1961) and Jean-Claude Brialy’s electric-blue suit and how it contrasted in rooms with white walls.”
The production shot entirely on location in the San Fernando Valley, Utah and Oahu. Initially, Anderson found changing his approach to filmmaking difficult. “There were scary moments when I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said. The director ended up using very little of the first two weeks of footage because “I was still making the same movie. I had to educate myself on how to keep it simple.”
Before filming, Anderson already had ideas for what he wanted to do with the film’s score and asked friend and regular collaborator Jon Brion to create a temporary score that could be played on set during principal photography. Anderson said, “It’s often a matter of having a rhythm in my head that I carry around for awhile. There was one that I sort of sang out to Jon Brion on Punch-Drunk Love, a waltzy kind of pattern, in which I was timing something out and giving him a tempo.”
Brion and his engineer recorded a series of ten-minute ensemble percussion pieces that gave the actors an idea of a given scene’s rhythm. His score blended in with the film’s overall sound design to the point that in post-production Brion submitted many three to five second pieces that “were essentially sound bites which they could place at their discretion.” The centerpiece of the film was always going to be “He Needs Me,” the Harry Nilsson-composed song. Anderson was able to get a hold of the original multi-track recordings and played the song over daily rushes. The crew, many of whom had not heard the song before, realized what he wanted to do.
Punch-Drunk Love received positive reviews from mainstream critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “The film is exhilarating to watch because Sandler, liberated from the constraints of formula, reveals unexpected depths as an actor. Watching this film, you can imagine him in Dennis Hopper roles. He has darkness, obsession and power.” In his review for The New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “What Mr. Anderson wants to do is recapture, without nostalgia, the giddiness and sweep of old movies, and his mastery of the emotional machinery of the medium is breathtaking. You can feel his impulsive pleasure as he flings the camera through long tracking shots, and layers his nimble visual compositions with music.”
The New York Observer’s Andrew Sarris wrote, “It is already apparent that Punch-Drunk Love will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but nonetheless Mr. Anderson has found a way to fashion a passionate romance out of the materials of postmodern chaos.” Entertainment Weekly gave it a “B+” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “At heart, Punch-Drunk Love is a David Lynch film, a cosmic daydream in which Sandler gets sucked into a vortex where the power of love fights the pull of darkness.” The USA Today’s Mike Clark gave it three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “This near-magical collaboration seems the right movie at the right time for star and filmmaker. It proves that Sandler has talent beyond his in-your-face past vehicles and that Anderson … can triumph on a scale smaller than the 188-minute Magnolia.” However, in his review for the Village Voice, J. Hoberman wrote, “As elegantly crafted as it often is, Anderson’s movie is essentially a one-trick pony that, hampered by an undeveloped script, ultimately pulls up lame.”
With this film, Sandler took his angry man-child persona to places it hadn’t been before as Anderson examines the reasons why Barry acts the way he does. Sandler’s behavior is more extreme and the situations Barry finds himself in are more heightened and stylized than the comedian’s usual fare. As a conventional romantic comedy, Punch-Drunk Love is a complete failure. It doesn’t adhere to the usual conventions or follow the traditional beats we normally associate with the genre and this is a good thing. Anderson takes the genre and filters it through his unique sensibilities to make a film distinctly his own. He has crafted a sweet yet odd love story about a man who learns how to love.
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