Punch-Drunk Love (2002) [Review Re-View]
So what do you get when you cross clown prince Adam Sandler and the writer/director of the lengthy epics Magnolia and Boogie Nights? Well you get the most unique romantic comedy ever, that’s what.
Barry Egan (Sandler) is a self-employed supplier of novelty toilet plungers. His seven older sisters have made it their job to torment him ever since he was young. In moments of confession of his unhappiness Barry usually prefaces by pleading with people not to tell his sisters. Barry is a timid introverted wallflower yet full of volatile rage fit to senselessly trash a restaurant bathroom. Lena Leonard (Emily Watson) pursues Barry after being introduced through one of his sisters. Lena latches onto the oddball and he finds the maternal comfort and acceptance he has missed his entire life. Somehow these two souls have crossed paths and become exactly what the other has always needed.
But Barry has trouble ahead of him. One night he called a phone sex line and innocently gave out all of his personal information over the phone. Now a sleazy Provo mattress store owner (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is extorting money from Barry and using four blond Mormon brothers as his muscle. When Barry confronts the thugs, whom have now begun to endanger Lena as well, he boldly states, ”I have a love in my life and that gives me more strength than you will ever know.” You cant help but believe it and genuinely feel for the resurgence of this character’s dignity.
Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson spins an engrossing character study deconstructing the angry goofball Sandler has been so accustomed to playing in all his slapstick comedies. He plays the same character archetype but is now given new dimensions to play with and depth. The true revelation of Punch-Drunk Love is that Sandler can really act. No, really, I’m dead serious.
The direction and writing are much more restrained than with Andersons previous films. The world of Punch-Drunk Love is full of stark colors, slow camera movements and vast amounts of spatial emptiness. The scope is much narrower, focusing on a small set of characters and just allowing them to tell the story without outside interference — like a frog shower. Due to the attention paid to Barry, everyone else becomes underwritten including the stoic love interest. After being convinced of Barry’s instabilities the audience is left to assume sheer blind faith at what Lena sees in Barry.
Punch-Drunk Love gleefully ignores and plays with romantic comedy conventions. The running time is under 90 minutes, (which is still only HALF of Magnolia) but the pacing is precise. John Brion’s percussion-heavy musical score wonderfully displays the boiling anger behind Barry’s placid exterior during key moments.
The storytelling of Punch-Drunk Love is full of uneasily accessible quirks and will likely be reacted to with hostility by mainstream America. What Anderson has crafted is an arty Adam Sandler movie that few thought even possible. Next thing you’ll tell me is that David Lynch will do a G-rated Disney Film. What’s that now?
Nate’s Grade: B+
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
Paul Thomas Anderson said he was burnt out after the publicity tour from 1999’s Magnolia, enough so that he wanted to do something different and test himself and challenge critics that had become accustomed to his multi-character L.A. magnum opuses. When asked by a journalist what actors he would like to work with next, Anderson said, “Adam Sandler and Daniel Day-Lewis.” At the time, people mistook the answer as a joke, considering one of them is one of the greatest living actors and the other one played the Waterboy. It was Anderson who had the last laugh, as his “art house Adam Sandler movie” in 2002 was exactly that, and Punch-Drunk Love won him the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It also established the versatility of Anderson as a filmmaker and the real fact that, yes, Sandler can indeed act.
Punch-Drunk Love also stands out to me as the last PTA movie I really enjoyed for a 15-year stretch, which was a surprise considering Boogie Nights and Magnolia are two of my favorite movies of all time. It’s the beginning of his stripped down, looser, more meandering movies, a style that didn’t gel for me as much as his earlier, ambitious, plot-packed hits. I was indifferent to 2007’s There Will Be Blood (willing to re-evaluate in 2027) and worse with 2012’s The Master and 2014’s Infinite Vice. It wasn’t until 2017’s Phantom Thread where I felt like I genuinely enjoyed a PTA movie again, though this too was short-lived as I was back to indifferent with 2021’s Licorice Pizza. The movies from 2002 onward, now encompassing twenty years of art, are definitely more insular, personal, idiosyncratic, and for me, sadly, less engaging. I felt The Master was a mess and anchored around the wrong character. I felt Infinite Vice was purposely alienating. I felt Licorice Pizza was someone else’s inaccessible nostalgia. I did respond to the character study of a narcissistic fashion designer in Phantom Thread and the toxic relationships he uses as inspiration. That one was good. Sadly, with that lone exception in 2017, the ensuing two decades has established a harsh realization that modern PTA just isn’t for me. Artists grow and change, and they shouldn’t be penned in by audience demands and expectations, but it’s still a little disappointing to lose touch with an artist you admired and really connected with, like a friendship that just naturally diverted down another path. It happens. Not everything has to be curated for me. I still have the PTA movies I truly adore, and that’s more than plenty.
It’s fascinating that someone of PTA’s indie cred caliber decided not just to make an “Adam Sandler movie” but to deconstruct that growing subgenre in the late 90s/early 2000s and question how Sandler’s sweet screwups with anger management issues got to be the way they are. It’s a psychological profile while also serving as a winning romantic comedy that exists in its own more adult world but one that still has a bit of that pixie dust magic. It was conceived as an intellectual exercise but it becomes one of Anderson’s most simple pleasures, an optimistic and reassuring story that rhapsodizes the healing power of love. It’s by far the least cynical movie that Anderson has ever made and the most simplified, taking inspiration from the French New Wave in approach and style. The movie looks at Barry Egan (Sandler) like a wounded puppy, examining his insecurities and how they came to be but saying, declaratively, that even this creature deserves tenderness and happiness. Tender is really the right word for this movie, which just radiates an open-hearted compassion. Magnolia was a PTA movie with a big heart and big explosive feelings with similar lessons in empathy and agency. If Magnolia is a grandiose opera, then Punch-Drunk Love is a stripped-down acoustic version of a familiar love song.
The movie has a gentle spirit reminiscent of fables. Our hero is so innocent that he calls a phone sex line because he’s so desperately lonely and not for anything prurient. The entire opening involves a car crash that deposits a lost harmonium as if it was a displaced magical totem. It lures Barry to it and becomes a fixture of the movie, more a metaphor than an important plot point. The tiny musical instrument arrives via violence, and when Barry retrieves it Anderson gooses the audience with an unexpected jump scare, violence trying to return the instrument to splinters. It’s these moments of sudden, sharp violence or menace that creep in, unwelcomed from the more whimsical and optimistic tone pervading. The threat of the phone sex extortion ring brings real danger to Barry, first as embarrassment and then harassment and then physical harm, and this catapults Barry into taking charge of his life because, at last, he has something he treasures and is afraid of losing (“I have a love in my life. That makes me stronger than anything you can imagine”). It’s heartwarming without losing its oddball identity. Our loving pillow talk between Barry and Lena (Emily Watson) involves them making gooey-eyes faces while describing how they would destroy one another’s face. Much of the humor comes from the awkwardness of Barry trying to pretend he’s doing well, like being confronted by a restaurant manager over a bathroom he definitely destroyed, or with the many demeaning encounters with his seven overbearing sisters (most of whom are non-professional actors). The spirit of the movie doesn’t ask us to judge or make fun of Barry but rather cheer for his self-actualization, and it works.
Sandler had a successful run of slovenly comedies for decades, though his last studio movie was 2015’s Pixels. As I aged out of his comedy demo, I have found Sandler most engaging with his occasional trip into dramatic acting. It doesn’t always work (Reign Over Me, Funny People, Men, Women & Children) but it has a higher success rate than his autopilot comedies. I re-watched 2002’s Mr. Deeds last summer as a prelude for jumping back into this movie. I wrote, “…As the years progressed Sandler began to transform from the slovenly goofball provocateur to the laid-back, wisecracking family man trying to convince non-believers of his righteous old-fashioned wisdom. His once outsider status had calcified into a sentimental, middle-aged ‘these kids today don’t get it’ laziness.” The question whether Sandler can actually act has long been answered, though first with Punch-Drunk Love twenty years ago. It helps that Anderson specifically wrote the role for Sandler and in a familiar wavelength for the actor. Barry is another of Sandler’s goofballs, with anger issues and a heart of gold, but he’s no smart aleck, he doesn’t like himself but starts to when he can share his vulnerability. Sandler’s shy, awkward demeanor is endearing and his progression with reclaiming his dignity and standing up to bullying, from his pestering family to his own blackmailer, is uplifting. Sandler plays a familiar character type but with more depth and insight than ever asked of him.
I also deeply miss Phillip Seymour Hoffman every time I watch him onscreen. His villainous mattress salesman Dean Trumbull has two standout scenes demonstrating his anger. He’s not a realistically threatening villain, more along the lines of a small-time demented Daffy Duck, but it works to better establish a villain that Barry can triumph over in the end. Watson (Breaking the Waves, Chernobyl) is better known for brittle dramas, so it’s a nice change of pace to watch her actually be happy for once in a movie. Fun fact: the voice of the phone sex operator that Barry turn to is Mr. Show alum Karen Kilgariff, who I never realized up until this moment is the same woman who co-hosts the wildly popular true crime podcast series, My Favorite Murder.
This movie would not be as good if it starred anyone else rather than Adam Sandler. That’s not a sentiment that gets said often, but it’s true. Punch-Drunk Love was designed as a meta-deconstruction of the Sandler archetype, as well as a refreshing challenge in restraint for Anderson after two movies in a row of extravagance. Unbeknownst to all of us, this movie served as a crossroads for both Sandler and Anderson, who favored the looser creative approach, enough so that ditching his first couple weeks of film footage became a standard PTA practice. It was an experiment on three levels: 1) can you deconstruct a Sandler vehicle, 2) can Sandler genuinely act, and 3) can Anderson actually hold back and tell a straightforward 90-minute story? Looking back at my review in 2002, I find myself with the same response, even the mild criticisms of the supporting characters being chiefly underwritten. I don’t know if it plays with rom-com conventions but it’s definitely PTA’s most unabashed romantic movie. I’d raise the grade ever so slightly from my initial B+ to an A, especially with how mediocre this re-watch year has shaped up to be. Punch-Drunk Love is an airy treat and an analytical thesis in one.
Nate’s Grade: A