Punch-Drunk Love, for the uninitiated, is an Adam Sandler romantic comedy. Before you slam your laptop lid in disgust, give me a moment to explain why you should give this film a chance. You see, before Adam Sandler was in films like Jack and Jill, Pixels and That’s My Boy, he made a few good comedies. Happy Gilmore, The Wedding Singer, Billy Madison, these were some of the funniest films of the 90s.
But Punch-Drunk Love was a little more than that. This was extra special. This was Paul Thomas Anderson’s fourth feature-length film, and the follow-up to Boogie Nights and Magnolia, both of which earned three Oscar nominations each.
Sandler’s inclusion in the product was the cause of some confusion at the time, because why would such a visionary auteur cast a comedian who’s signature trait was acting out like an overgrown toddler? At the time, Anderson gave the excuse that he was a fan of Sandler’s movies and while that might be true, the reason he was called up for this specific project was because, in it, Anderson found some utility for Sandler’s signature childish affectations.
Sandler plays Barry Egan a man who operates an authoritative role at a company that makes novelty plungers. We see him first wearing a suit, one that he only takes off during key scenes, but he doesn’t know why he’s brought it or why he continues to wear it. The reason we are led to believe through his characterisation is because of appearances.
Barry is a child who is aware that he has grown into a man but cannot emotionally grow into the man’s body. He has uncontrollable emotions, he lashes out, he cries for no reason. He has a job and responsibilities but cannot achieve intimacy with a woman for risk of exposing his quite literal immaturity to her. He performs the functions that mimic adulthood with the monotone pretention of a crude artificial intelligence.
This façade he presents to the world only cracks when he is in contact with his overbearing seven sisters, all of whom are aware that he is not normal, yet refuse to see the anguish their attempts at forging him into a functioning member of civilisation cause him. So blind are they to his mental problems that one of them is surprised that he has sought the help of a psychiatrist, even after a fit of rage sees him shattering her screen doors. Family never want to believe that their own kin are the kind of people they call freaks when they see them on Jerry Springer.
Barry is in desperate need of help, but nobody wants to bother themselves with his blatant social difficulties, preferring to either shoo him away or force his square peg personality into the round whole of society. Eventually, he meets Lena, an English woman played by Emily Watson. Try not to think about their relationship too hard. It is the heart and soul of the film; a man who has difficulties adjusting himself to meet the needs of other people meets a woman with whom he finds a sense of normalcy and belonging.
However the more you think about it the more messed up it is. If you want to still feel good about their relationship stop reading now. She is revealed to have been desperate to meet him after seeing his picture as a little boy. Having met him, it’s clear to see that he is still that little boy, yet she insists on going out with him anyway, choosing not to ignore his clearly unstable behaviour.
She’s not as dysfunctional as he is so why is that? Is she fetishizing his mental illness? Is he a replacement for some missing child in her life? Is she a paedophile and this is the closest she can get to being involved with a child without going to jail for it? And the fact that she is English carries all sorts of Mary Poppins-esque nanny connotations. It makes their tangible chemistry together almost unnerving, adding an extra edge to a film that always seems to be teetering on it.
Other than that though, it’s a surprisingly standard romantic comedy plot-wise, just one populated by outlandishly quirky characters and filmed by a cinematic maestro. He’s a single guy who can’t commit, she’s the girl of his dreams. Only he can’t commit because of his arrested development and she his dream girl because she’s an enabler. He’s got a secret he can’t tell her, but his secret is that he’s being blackmailed by a phone-sex worker. He makes a grand romantic gesture in the end but that gesture is played on a harmonium that carries a similar sort of symbolic role as the chess board in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.
The film is shot in an almost overly cinematically way; notice how the camera zooms in carefully but purposefully on the two lovers when they first meet with romantic intentions, almost parodying old Hollywood tearjerkers. Elsewhere, the film takes on an ethereal quality almost mimicking magical realism, blurring the lines between fantasy and reality, making you question what is really happening and if it’s all just a fabrication of Barry’s unravelling mind. And if it is unravelling then why would his delusions not take the shape of a movie? I mean, aren’t they are the most glamorous delusions of all?
Punch-Drunk Love is a tribute to the glitziness of romantic comedies and an expose of their true absurdity. Both mimicking them without being one of them, yet desperately yearning to truly belong, it creates one of the best microcosms of mental illness I’ve ever seen on celluloid and it came out at a time when mental illness was still too taboo to talk about.
Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson
Scr: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Prd: Paul Thomas Anderson, Daniel Lupi, JoAnne Sellar
DOP: Robert Elswit
Music: Jon Brion
Running Time: 95 mins