Paul Thomas Anderson, is there ever a day in which your brilliance is going to cease to amaze me? Given his excellent track record prior to Punch-Drunk Love, it would already be a risky move for him to cast Adam Sandler in a leading role because Sandler’s comedic schtick is rather juvenile to a point where sometimes it can be unbearable, but instead something more comes out. What comes out is not only Adam Sandler’s very best performance on film (that goes without saying), but also one of the most down-to-earth depictions of love and mental illness to grace the screen. It’s not only remarkable in the sense that it has turned Adam Sandler into something above average for once, but also in the sense that it goes to show the remarkable consistency of the work of Paul Thomas Anderson – quite easily one of the most talented filmmakers of his generation.
Adam Sandler plays Barry Egan, a single man who is subject to emotional abuse as he is ridiculed by his overbearing sisters and as a result, he copes through his loneliness through mental breakdowns and fits of rage. On the outside, it is a role that already shines what creates any ordinary Adam Sandler character in any of his films, adding up to the cleverness of Punch-Drunk Love. His character is no different from any of his previous roles, but there’s something to which Paul Thomas Anderson is exposing through a performance like this that adds up to why we have grown to love a character much like Barry: the fact that it is an ordinary Adam Sandler character this time placed within a scenario that seems much more realistic compared to the premises that a typical Sandler film would bear, making the result carry an aura of awkwardness that soon evokes something more profound. It is a deconstruction of his comedic persona, this time now filled with sadness and destruction all around him.
Not only is the brilliance running through Adam Sandler’s character and the way he is written, but it is also from Adam Sandler’s performance itself. It goes without saying that Sandler’s performance in Punch-Drunk Love is indeed his career’s best role, but the reason it resonates so perfectly is because it is not only Sandler showing diversity (something which I wish we can acquire more from him) but it is how he is encapsulating the persona of a miserable man. It certainly helps that Paul Thomas Anderson is elevating his state of misery through the imagery which he employs, whether it be from the framing of the shots as captured by Robert Elswit or the visual interludes beautifully designed by Jeremy Blake, all of which adds up to not only a persona but also a perspective – for we begin to see things the way that Barry is seeing them, he is a man who is manipulated by all the misery that shrouds him and he is seeking a way of breaking free.
It is also notable that this is where Paul Thomas Anderson is also at some of his most personal. With the large scale of his two previous features, Boogie Nights and Magnolia, it is clear from his simple intentions for Punch-Drunk Love that he is aspiring for something fully himself, as said films show he is taking influence one way or another. While it may not necessarily be something better than the two of them, what he creates with Punch-Drunk Love is extremely touching because of the clear personal touches that he leaves behind and how clear he makes them out to be. It is a drastic turn from his previous works, but knowing what he is wishing to embrace through all the simplistic choices which are being left behind in Punch-Drunk Love, all of it adds up to something all the more incredible as one can expect from the eye of Paul Thomas Anderson.
The small scale which Paul Thomas Anderson is aiming for is susceptible to fall under the territory where most indie romantic comedies land: in the sense that they are films that fluff themselves with quirks to a degree it turns annoying. Paul Thomas Anderson, however, moves away from the dangers through how he is encapsulating all the most powerful aspects ofPunch-Drunk Love, as all of it comes from the damaged perspective of Barry Egan, a flawed man. The film is shrouded in his own misery, but it all adds up to where the power of Punch-Drunk Love comes out, in how it is all encapsulating his loneliness and how it is damaging him as a person. It is capturing a complicated process through all the unexpected turns of events that come along, especially within its placement into a realistic perspective of a depressed man. Never do the odd elements come off as quirks, but instead something grounded in honesty, a core element to Punch-Drunk Love‘s power.
Barry falls for Emily Watson’s Lena Leonard. Emily Watson, in arguably her best onscreen performance since Lars von Trier’sBreaking the Waves is yet another flawed being, just as much as Barry is. The bond is so evident from the first moment that they share on the screen together, but it is also from the performance she carries that elevates Punch-Drunk Love to such heights. While she is undoubtedly great inside of this supporting role, also notable is the role of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Although Hoffman is in the film for a relatively short period of time, there is something that he carries which makes for something all the more incredible from the moments he shares together with Sandler’s Barry Egan.
Punch-Drunk Love is a film about a damaged man from the eyes of a damaged man. It may not be what I would see as Paul Thomas Anderson’s best film, but the personal cues are what elevate such a film to the heights it has managed to achieve, especially within how inside of its own misery it is always so honest. Within a short running time of 90 minutes, the many details that Paul Thomas Anderson is willing to explore make for something incredibly thoughtful from start to finish. It distorts an Adam Sandler persona into what they can come off as when inside of a realistic situation, but from the dramatic tensions that come through and through, we soon realize something about such characters that feels so relatable in some extent. They are damaged people searching for something to relieve their lives from the stressful state they are within, but it is within Punch-Drunk Love where everything is all so clear, adding to the beauty it leaves behind.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Columbia Pictures.
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Screenplay by Paul Thomas Anderson
Produced by JoAnne Sellar, Daniel Lupi, Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Release Year: 2002
Running Time: 96 minutes