Paul Thomas Anderson’s third film and his shortest by some mark is Punch Drunk Love, a fantastically extrovert romantic comedy which combines shades of Coen-esque humour and dare I say Lynch-ian motifs of magical realism and dual personality. The film is unlike any romantic comedy I’ve seen before and personally I prefer it to the likes of There Will be Blood and The Master for which the Director is better known.
Although the plot is often a bit thin and sometimes incidental it concerns a lonely and occasionally awkward man called Barry (Adam Sandler) who owns a small business that sells novelty toilet plungers. Barry has the misfortune of having seven sisters, a situation which emasculates him and causes him no end of hassle and grief. One day while at work Barry witnesses a horrific car accident and suddenly ends up with a harmonium. That same day he also meets a pretty girl called Lena (Emily Watson). Sometime later, while lonely, Barry calls a premium rate sex line, a move which brings about a lot more pain and hassle than even seven sisters can muster.
I can’t speak highly enough of Punch Drunk Love. I absolutely loved the film and wish I’d only seen it sooner. For years I’d heard that it was the film which let Adam Sandler off the hook for all the awful, less than funny, vomit inducing mushy pineapples of films he’s created over the last decade or so and while I still can’t let him off completely, I’m about to write a sentence I never thought I’d write. Adam Sander is terrific in this film. He has a certain danger to him which is missing from his broader comedic roles and really suits him. One of the flaws in his character is that he has a lot of pent up anger and frustration which busts out from time to time and Sandler delivers this brooding menace brilliantly before unleashing his anger in a convincing manner. For 95% of the film though his character is just a regular guy who is trying to run a business and get on with his life. He has a lot of quirks such as buying thousands of dollars of pudding for an air miles promotion but that only helps to hide his darker, uncontrollable side.
As well as Sandler’s brilliant performance, co-star Emily Watson is also very good. She is quite coy but there are signs that mark her out as having much more of a dominant personality. It is her who makes not only the first move but also initiates their introduction. She also appears to be following Barry through a supermarket at one stage although whether it is actually her or not is never revealed. There is a brief two scene cameo from Philip Seymour Hoffman who is brilliant, playing a total bastard. He and Sandler share one great scene together which is funny, loud and uneasy.
Writer/Director Paul Thomas Anderson is also on top form here too. His script, though lacking plot is full of weirdly quirky and unusual details such as the pudding, air miles, plungers, blonde brothers and nasty sex line workers. It is the script which felt most like a Coen film to me. Anderson manages to mask the fact that his plot is thin and his ending is less than perfect by inserting interesting plot devices and incidents which sometimes don’t make a lot of sense but go together to make a really enjoyable story. I was really impressed with the cinematography and direction too. I loved some of the interesting camera angles and set ups such as a quick cut of Sandler stood next to a road, first from 90 degrees to his left then 90 degrees to his right. It looked fantastic. The camera also moves in an incredibly satisfying way. In one scene it pans around Barry’s apartment, watching him as he paces nervously around. In another it follows Lena after their introduction. The film is full of great camera moves. It also features some great visuals aside from the main body of the film. There are occasional artistic flashes of colour which separate scenes and they sometimes attempt to creep into scenes themselves. It added a psychedelic surrealism to the film and I thought it was dazzling.
Even though there is a fantastic acting performance and great look to the film, the highlight for me was the music. The score makes the film. It is intense and creates a sense of frantic tension. I’ve read that it was created in conjunction with the visuals rather than added afterwards and even played during filming. This really helps to create a sense of urgency and nervousness about some of the performances. Something else I noticed was the score’s volume. Generally a score works as a bed underneath the dialogue but in Punch Drunk Love it is often on a par with or louder than the dialogue. This places the music front and centre. It was a bit odd but worked really well. Composer John Brion deserves a lot of credit where this film is concerned.
Overall Punch Drunk Love was a pleasant surprise. Despite being a combination of one of my least favourite genres, least favourite actors and a Director whose films often frustrate me I absolutely adored it. It isn’t a traditional rom-com and at times didn’t even try to be as funny as the average rom-com. The drama though is much more intense, funny and engaging than in anything the genre can throw up. It also features a terrific Adam Sandler performance, a stunning score and is wonderfully strange and on edge. Unlike The Master I feel as though I can forgive its flaws as the whole package was much more gratifying and much less time consuming.