The Wonders of Punch-Drunk Love
So, what is love? It can be evoked with a minor chord and a lyric from your favourite song, it could be imagined freeze-framed in a candid photo of successful celebrity couple, or it could be just like in the movies.
There’s the straightforward black and white love, naïve teenage love, the jealous kind, the unrequited kind, tragic love, and the happy ever after love.
There’s every romantic comedy Hollywood ever produced; the binary perfection, the yes/no, up/down, often simple and idealistic version of love. Devoid of its strangeness, and lacking complexity, just hair and shoes, heroes and villains, in love or not in love.
With the confronting complexity of the modern world, where just being alive can be confusing, knowing what love is and attempting to find it within the homogenised cityscapes and monotonous conveyor of a grey working week can be difficult.
We can feel lost as we aimlessly doggy paddle across the surface of the vast oily ocean of our own seemingly endless and bewildering needs and wants.
There’s a strange love that Hollywood occasionally reminds us of, a messy, awkward, but beautiful thing that exists because we are messy, and we are awkward, and we’re living in a messy, and awkward world.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Punch-Drunk Love’ is a study in loneliness, and how we can survive but not exist, and how we can tolerate but not fight back. We sit back and become half of what we’re capable of, experiencing half of what we possibly could because the world sometimes just doesn’t feel right.
The film wants us to be in love, and it wants us to love Barry Egan, played with subtle intensity by Adam Sandler – a truly inspired casting choice and a surprise to everyone who previously only knew Sandler as the Waterboy or Happy Gilmore. Yes, the guy can act.
Punch Drunk Love appeared three years after Anderson’s three hour epic, ‘Magnolia’, a film that is everything a three hour film should be. Magnolia was a critical success, and really did showcase the skill and competency of Anderson as a filmmaker. With ‘Punch Drunk Love’, Anderson decided to do what many successful artists do, and instead or doing what would be expected, and take Magnolia as a template for his next film, he decided to strip things right back and make what in essence is a very simple film, with a small cast, few shooting locations, and a running time of only 95 minutes – a truly concise film.
Anderson’s film hurls us immediately into the mundane and awkward existence of Adam Sandler’s ‘Barry Egan’, his straightforward world being spun chaotically by those around him.
The film begins with the onset of big changes for Egan, when a motor vehicle spectacularly crashes before a another vehicle drops off an unusual gift. Its change that Egan needs, and the changes seem to be finding him.
Emily Watson plays Lena, a friend of one of Egan’s seven bullying sisters, and someone who is determined to force the change that she can’t possibly know that Egan needs. She speaks his secret language, and they fall for each other almost immediately. She then becomes the centre for all that Egan is, and his reason for existing. He becomes an unlikely romantic hero.
Egan’s character is complex, but more than anything we see him as extremes; passionate and sometimes violent extremes.
Anderson’s film gives us a spectacularly dizzying view from inside Egan’s head, as we vividly live his conflicts and anxiety through Jeremy Blake’s hallucinogenic artwork and Jon Brion’s evocative score – which together are stunningly effective.
During some scenes the film seems to moves at an almost headache inducing pace, with dialogue crashing against dialogue as much as the physical world around Egan is being smashed apart. The high tension and then calm release within Egan can feel so palpable, and the aesthetic created by Brion and Blake works perfectly to create something really quite beautiful and unique. Anderson moves the handheld camera subtlety and smartly to describe the bubbles of tension within Egan, then gives us Brion and Blake to allow us a moment to breathe.
A special mention goes to Philip Seymour Hoffman and his portrayal of Dean Trumbell, the ‘Mattress Man’. A hilarious performance of a character that is almost the antithesis of Egan, a man that presents Egan with an opportunity to face up to himself. In challenging the Mattress Man Egan validates himself, he’s the good guy, and he becomes hero he deserves to be.
Also, the Hawaiian sex scene involving Sandler and Watson’s characters is quite unlike anything seen on film before. It’s weirdly playful and it’s untidy, but it’s familiar, and the dialogue is hilarious. There’s a wild and natural sense of the real with what is presented, even if it doesn’t quite seem right.
‘Punch Drunk Love’ stands out as a film quite different to Anderson’s other work, and perhaps because of this it’s a little bit misunderstood and underappreciated. Maybe it’s the title, maybe it’s Sandler’s name on the poster, maybe it’s the fact it has to live in the shadow of Magnolia?
Whatever it is, it altered the perception of how a romantic comedy should be and added something unique to the genre.
As a piece of work it could be considered Anderson’s best, it doesn’t really put a foot wrong and it’s practically perfect in its execution. It feels like nothing else, and it also gave us a different version of Adam Sandler, a Sandler we’d all like to see again.
Words: Marc Heeley