I have to admit to liking most Adam Sandler movies. They aren’t great, but I get a few laughs out of them, and they certainly aren’t pretending to be anything more interesting than they are. I’m not exactly a serious fan, but I’m also not at all opposed to him, so I may have some advantages going into Punch-Drunk Love. I say that because perhaps the perfect way to go into this movie is to not be a fan, but also to be able to give Sandler the benefit of the doubt.
Punch-Drunk Love (which is somewhat distanced from me as a title, because in my neck of the woods it’s ‘Slap-Happy’) is simply the story of a brief amount of time snatched from the life of Barry Egan (Sandler). Barry, though in some sense he is rather simple, is as complex a character as most Sandler characters are hollow excuses for endless gags. Barry is severely emotionally stunted, and has little to no ability to interact with people. He manages to run his own business despite his failings, or perhaps because of them (where would he work?), and he is ‘doing pretty good for a start up’.
We are introduced to Barry through a series of scenes that let us into him brilliantly, but don’t give us the slightest clue what’s going on with the movie. After fifteen minutes you are somewhat hooked into the character, but you have no idea what direction we’re going to be moving. It’s wonderful. We soon learn that Barry is a product of being raised alongside seven sisters who spent their lives (and still do) taking every opportunity to humiliate, demoralize, and dehumanize him. The result is a Barry who is thoroughly dispirited, who simply takes and takes and takes until he snaps, and kicks in a patio door (or two, or three), or destroys a public restroom in a restaurant. Nevertheless, he has a rather surprising amount of self-esteem, though it is naturally an oddish sort of self-esteem. He thinks he’s not so bad really, he just thinks this is his role.
Our story gets underway with the introduction of two ‘events’. Barry is quasi-setup with Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), and in a completely unrelated twist, he calls a phone sex line. Barry’s conversation with the phone sex girl is possibly one of the best scenes on film in quite a while. Even had you not been introduced to Barry before, this scene could serve to catch you up with him. A conversation on a phone sex line by a guy who really doesn’t want anything to do with a phone sex line couldn’t have been done better.
The morning after the call to the 900 number, Barry’s phone rings again (in fact, I don’t think he goes much more than five minutes without receiving a call in the entire film). It’s the phone sex girl, and she wants money. Operating under the assumption that Barry has a girlfriend, and that she can thus blackmail him, she continues to call and threaten him. When that’s not enough, the owner of the ‘business’ (Philip Seymour Hoffman) sends some boys down to rough some money out of Barry. Meanwhile, Barry begins an attempt at a relationship with Lena. She fell in love with him (stalker-style) when she first saw a picture of him, and nothing he can admit to will change her mind.
We’re off to the races, with Barry trying desperately to connect with Lena, while being hounded by phone sex muscle.
Punch-Drunk Love, I should point out from the start, is a movie with two things going for it that make it a five star movie despite almost anything else that could have theoretically happened. First, as I checked my watch and realized the movie was half over I became aware that I still had no idea where the film was going. There are just too many possibilities with a character like Barry to get a hold on a direction. Second, the film actually made me tense, and that’s a count them up on one hand sort of rarity. Somehow, the second one was the bigger surprise. The things that happen in the movie are in some sense so simple, but combined with Barry’s overwhelming inability to deal with anything, it was mesmerizing. I had to know what was going to happen. I was, bizarrely and literally on the edge of my seat.
With those things going for it, the movie hardly needs any other positives, but it has no shortage of them. Leading the pack is simply the perfection of Barry’s character. Adam Sandler gives one of the most outstanding performances of the year, and that’s a string of words no one expected to see. It’s more than just Sandler’s performance though (and don’t make too much of that statement), it’s the deft way in which the character is presented in all respects, from the writing of the character to the filming.
The subtleties, and most minute moments, that introduce every angle of the man. That Barry finds a loophole in a promotion to receive frequent-flyer miles, and that his find is as good as winning the lottery to him, is a fine and insightful element of the character. As it is built throughout the movie, however, it becomes much more. A genius stroke that delves into the heart of Barry Egan. Breaking into a little soft-shoe number in the middle of the aisle at a grocery store during a further raid on the pudding that is the key, Barry hasn’t found a loophole in a meaningless, marketing gimmick. He’s found a loophole in a life that has nothing for him, and he latches on accordingly.
Adding to the character mix is a subdued Emily Watson. Though obviously intended to be rather mixed-up herself, she plays a role somehow very similar to her character in The Luzhin Defense (a wonderful film as well). She is a spark of sorts for Barry, and in an intriguing fashion ‘the thing which Barry can see’. She has a character-summarizing look she delivers with some frequency, (head tilted down, slight, perky smile filled with a bit of embarrassment and healthy dose of ‘knowing’).
Of course, P. T. Anderson is spinning everything together, and he’s better than he’s ever been. What more do you want? In truth, I’m not a fan of Boogie Nights, or Magnolia, neither being at all my cup of my tea (and both having rather serious failings), but they were fun to watch in a way similar to spending a few hours talking film with a serious fan.
In this endeavor, Anderson has solidified his abilities, and made the move from ‘person to watch out for’ to ‘person to never miss under any circumstances’. He uses filming techniques, with an eye for every detail, like an artist longs for every brush stroke to be perfect. He uses light, framing, time, color, even over-exposure, and whatever he does, he means something by it. Some points in the film are simply too wonderful to relate, and you actually have to stop yourself from switching your attention to how incredibly the film is crafted, so that you can pay attention to it.
At one point early in the film I had to (and was glad I could) watch a five-minute segment three times, because there was never a cut, and frankly it was freaking me out. It is a common device in this film, and it’s so brilliant no one would dare do it. The most innocuous of scenes were making me tense and uncomfortable for no other reason than that the scene refused to cut. It’s a bit like blinking. You don’t generally notice a person blink while you’re talking to them, but if they were to suddenly stop altogether it’d be rather unnerving.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is starting to get some of the credit he deserves, gives a fine supporting performance as the owner of the phone sex business/scam. His role is too small to elicit any extraordinary response, but it does what it is supposed to, support.
Luis Guzman, who is now officially in every other movie released, and may one day be known as one of the all-time great character actors, plays the only other person in Barry’s business we get any exposure to. His job is mainly to be bewildered by Barry, and though he does it quite well, how hard is it really?
Punch-Drunk Love is a movie utterly lacking in target audience, and moreover lacking in target. It’s a movie that knows more about people (and oddly has both more and less to say on the subject) than 99% of the movies that exist. It’s a movie that knows more about film (and is practically a primer on the subject) than anything to come so close to breaking even (in American theatrical gross) in years. And, it’s a movie filled with more spur to thought and discussion than anything so masterfully entertaining.
On the other hand, you’ll be in the overwhelming majority if you dislike it intensely.
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