Punch-Drunk Love Review
Read an alternative review by Barry Woodcock (Region 2 DVD)
Punch-Drunk Love, a collaboration between comedy star Adam Sandler and acclaimed independent director Paul Thomas Anderson, failed to find an audience in America. Fans of Sandler's mainstream comedies loathed it and those who might have appreciated it were put off by its star. It's a pity because, approached with an open mind, this is an exciting and startlingly original blend of comedy, romance and drama.
The main reason it works so well is that Sandler is absolutely perfect for the lead role. The characters he's played in his more conventional films have often been angry, antisocial and violent people, like the golfer with the temper in Happy Gilmore and the town delinquent in Eight Crazy Nights. Anderson taps into that side of him and takes it to its logical extreme - what if he was playing a character who really did have those problems? Stripped of the wisecracks, the wacky material and the winks to the audience to let you know he's just kidding, Sandler here plays a genuinely troubled, almost tragic character. Not that he isn't funny in the film - he is, but in a nervous, edgy, slightly scary way we haven't seen before.
The story follows a few eventful days in the life of Barry Egan, a man who owns his own business, keeps a stolen piano in his office and buys pudding by the trolley-load to exploit a loophole in an air miles promotion. Barry feels intimidated by his seven sisters, who won't stay out of his life and treat him like a child, but he puts up with them because otherwise he would have no one. He doesn't see women, he has no friends and, even at work, his employees like him but are wary of him. They have good reason to be - Barry is carrying a lot of pent-up anger and his frustrations have a habit of bursting out in sudden, uncontrollable rages. At a family gathering, he explodes without warning and smashes a patio door.
Two things happen, almost on top of one other, which change Barry's life forever. Sitting alone in his house one evening, he decides to call a phone sex line. The next day, the operator he spoke to calls back and asks him for money. She won't take no for an answer and her demands turn into threats. At the same time, one of Barry's sisters introduces him to a work colleague called Lena (Emily Watson). A quiet but down to earth woman, she isn't put off by his shyness, seems to somehow understand him and keeps gently pressing him till he agrees to a date.
This could almost be the plot of a regular Sandler film. The sisters could be amusing pests, the blackmailing phone sex company could be played for laughs and the romance could go the usual "boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back" route. What gives Punch-Drunk Love its vitality is that it does none of those things. You never know what's going to happen next or what its volatile main character is going to do next. What Anderson has done is take the basic building blocks of a mainstream romantic comedy and approach it as if it were a real story about real people, without artifice or sugar coating. There's nothing wrong with Hollywood cliche when it's done well but it's refreshing to see a familiar genre from an original perspective.
As ever, the director gets superb performances from his actors. Sandler is extraordinary and so is Emily Watson in a more restrained but no less complex performance. Anderson regulars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Luis Guzman have memorable supporting roles, Guzman as Barry's foreman and Hoffman as the thuggish manager of the phone sex company. As with Boogie Nights and Magnolia, the movie has a vivid, slightly exaggerated style, making no concessions to anyone expecting The Wedding Singer. This is a film which demands an open mind and a certain indulgence of Anderson's eccentricities but it isn't some gratuitously weird indie flick, nor is it an exercise in showing off how clever the director is. It plays fair and is never less than true to its characters and the world it creates. If you didn't like Magnolia, this is unlikely to convert you but if you appreciate Anderson's sensibility and his attempt to find romance in the most unlikely people and places imaginable, you may find it his best film yet.