Punch-Drunk Love Review
When Magnolia was released to widespread critical acclaim in 1999, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson was faced with the inevitable question from interviewers as to what he would do next. Many were surprised to hear that he wanted to work with mainstream comedy actor Adam Sandler, but three years later that is precisely what he did, and Punch-Drunk Love is the unexpected result.
The film follows small business owner Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) over the course of a few eventful days. Dismissed by those around him as just being a bit weird, Barry in fact suffers from a number of serious emotional problems. Inwardly he is angry, sad and desperate, but his acute social anxiety and inadequacy leave him unable to express his feelings appropriately, resulting in sudden bursts of crying or violence. Aware that he needs help, but unaware of where or how to get it, Barry looks doomed to a solitary life of isolation and alienation, until hope is restored by two events that prove to have dramatic and unexpected consequences.
The first is Barry's call to a telephone sex company who have an unfortunate habit of blackmailing their customers. Barry refuses to pay, but the blackmailers won't take no for an answer.
The second significant event is Barry's encounter with Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), a British girl who may just be able to accept him for who he is and finally break through his isolation.
The premise may sound like the basis for a heart-rending melodrama, but in actual fact Punch-Drunk Love is a romantic comedy, albeit a deeply unconventional one. Much of the humour comes from observing Barry's wildly inappropriate responses to the situations in which he finds himself, which are both tragic and comic. The dialogue is humorous not because it contains witty one-liners or wisecracks, but as a consequence of its content, rhythm and timing, in much the same manner as Mike Leigh's All or Nothing.
Anderson maintains a Kubrickian distance from the characters, encouraging the audience to observe rather than identify with Barry Egan. A certain distance is necessary for the humour to work, as too close an identification with the protagonist would only allow us to experience the tragedy of his situation, and not the comedy as well.
That is not to say that Barry Egan alienates audiences, as he is still a sympathetic character, largely due to the fine performance from Adam Sandler. His portrayal of Barry is suitably awkward and self-conscious in some situations and yet believably aggressive and violent in others.
In contrast to the multi-threaded Magnolia and Boogie Nights, Punch-Drunk Love focuses very much on the protagonist and so the supporting players are left with little to do. Anderson regulars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Luis Guzman appear in welcome cameos, while Emily Watson is underused in the undeveloped role of Lena Leonard. All are excellent, despite the limitations of their roles.
The choice to use digital artwork by Jeremy Blake as segues between some of the scenes will no doubt be regarded by some as pretentious, but Blake's dazzling abstract displays of vivid colour, aside from their pure visual appeal, are very much in keeping with the film's romantically colourful cinematography and costume design.
Special mention should also be made of Jon Brion's score, which uses arrangements that are as interesting and unusual as the film itself. Much of the score has a cartoon-like feel, perhaps unsurprising given that much of it was inspired by the song He Needs Me, performed by Shelley Duvall for the movie version of Popeye, which also provides the soundtrack for Punch-Drunk Love's closing credits.
Idiosyncratic and unconventional in terms of both style and content, Punch-Drunk Love is not a film for everyone. The humour in particular may pass a lot of viewers by, and others may regard some of the director's arthouse eccentricities as pretentious and off-putting. Others will recognise that the film is a true original of the kind that can only be produced by a talented and inventive director who has been granted an unusual level of creative freedom.
For a second opinion of the film, read Kevin O'Reilly's theatrical review.
Punch-Drunk Love is presented over two discs, although the content of both discs combined is only a little more than could be stored on a single dual-layer disc. Both are encoded for Regions 2, 4 and 5.
The film is presented in the original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The anamorphic transfer is a slight disappointment, as although the vivid palette of colours used by the film is nicely presented, a mild level of noise coupled with a sometimes weak black level results in some of the darker scenes looking a little murky. Splice marks also appear at some points, though these are perhaps preferable to cropping.
Despite being predominately a dialogue-led film, surprisingly good use of the surround stage is made. The surround speakers are effectively used for ambient sound, spot effects and Jon Brion's score. Dialogue is clear and all the sound elements are clearly separated and positioned.
In keeping with the unconventional nature of the film, Columbia has supplied an unconventional set of extras.
Blossoms and Blood turns out to be a twelve-minute montage of deleted and extended scenes from the film interspersed with more of Jeremy Blake's artwork, while Jon Brion's song Here We Go provides the soundtrack. The combination results in a kind of extended visual tone poem that will bore some and fascinate others.
The Mattress Man Commercial, as the title implies, is fifty seconds of footage of Philip Seymour Hoffman's character filming an advert for his mattress company. To say much more would spoil the effect, but this clip shows that Hoffman is happy to perform his own stunts when required.
Within the section entitled Scopitones (a reference to a Sixties French precursor to the music video) are twelve short segments of Jon Brion's score accompanied by footage from the film. All of these sequences are short, varying in length from a miniscule twelve seconds to a still brief minute-and-a-half.
Two deleted scenes are also included. The first, entitled The Sisters Call is a seven-minute sequence that consists mainly of telephone calls to Barry from his seven sisters, trying to make arrangements for a party. The scene does nothing to further the plot, which is presumably why it was removed, but it does help to explain why Barry is how he is and why his problems have gone largely unrecognised in the constant tussling between his sisters.
The second deleted scene, Are You From California?, is an extended version of Barry's confrontation with the blonde brothers who've been sent by the telephone sex company to threaten him. The scene highlights Barry's complete vulnerability when he finds himself in situations in which he has no idea of how he should behave.
The trailers section contains three trailers of varying length and interest. The theatrical trailer is two-and-a-half minute affair that provides a good taster for the style and content of the film, although it does contain some minor spoilers.
Jeremy Blake's Love is the name given to a short minute-and-half trailer that consists for the most part of Jeremy Blake's artwork, with barely a few seconds of conventional footage from the film.
Finally, Eat Tomorrow is a thirty-second French TV Spot that refers to the film's success at Cannes in 2002, where the film was nominated for the Palme d'Or and won a Best Director award for Paul Thomas Anderson.
A three-minute segment called Art consists of a montage of Jeremy Blake's digital video artwork accompanied by the 1930s Annie Kerr song I've Gone Native Now.
Highlighting and selecting the text Punch-Drunk Love from the main menu on the second disc results in the various bonus materials being played back in random order.
The extra material will doubtless divide opinion as much as the film itself. While the absence of any analysis or deconstruction of the film may be disappointing, the extras are original and entertaining in their own right. The bonus materials are all presented in non-anamorphic transfers with optional English, French, Italian, Spanish and Dutch subtitles.
Punch-Drunk Love is a unique romantic comedy that combines quality performances, well-written dialogue, interesting visuals and an inventive score. The film is too idiosyncratic and unconventional to please everybody, but is recommended for more adventurous film watchers and connoisseurs of the offbeat.
The UK DVD release from Columbia Tri-Star has a reasonable transfer and good audio. The extras match the US release, which benefits from the additional inclusion of a DTS soundtrack.