It’s shorter than the standard Paul Thomas Anderson movie, and seems slighter. But is it really?
I don’t think so. In fact, Punch-Drunk Love may be the deepest film Anderson has made. But lacking the faux weightiness of an inflated running time, working within the formula of a romantic comedy and featuring a popular (but critically suspect) performer, its merits may be given short shrift. The irony is that the very things that are apt to weigh against it are the elements that make Punch-Drunk Love one of the most compelling films of the year.
Saying that the movie works within the formula of romantic comedy is misleading. It definitely is a romantic comedy, but one that turns the conventions of the genre upside down. In this regard, it’s not entirely unlike Secretary, though Anderson goes even further.
Consider the opening of Mitchell Leisen’s classic Easy Living, its plot set in motion when fed-up millionaire Edward Arnold tosses his spoiled wife’s fur coat out a window and it lands on working girl Jean Arthur, changing her life. In Punch-Drunk Love, a van pulls up and mysteriously deposits a harmonium at the feet of small-time entrepreneur — he sells novelty plungers — Barry Egan (Adam Sandler). Much like the coat in Easy Living — comically identified as a variety of different furs — no one seems to quite know what the instrument is. Barry thinks it’s a piano. His business partner, Lance (Luis Guzman), has a piano, and at least knows it isn’t one of those. And, like the fur coat did for Jean Arthur, the harmonium changes Barry’s life — although far more obscurely.
It’s the obscurity of it all that breaks with tradition. People may argue about what the harmonium is, they may question what Barry is doing with it, but it never occurs to anyone to wonder how or why the thing got there. Everyone is so obsessed with the side issues that the bigger picture isn’t just obscured — no one even realizes that there is a bigger picture.
This is especially sly since much of what the film is about is the bigger picture of Adam Sandler — something that most of us probably haven’t devoted a great deal of thought to. Many critics have waxed ecstatic over the revelation of Sandler’s acting ability in Punch-Drunk Love, and while it’s true that Sandler gives a much more meaningful performance here than in any of his previous films, Barry Egan isn’t really that different from Sandler’s other screen characters. In fact, what Anderson seems to be offering — and he did specifically write the film for Sandler — is a critique on Sandler’s screen persona.
Barry Egan is typically Sandlerian in being a kind of awkward, nerdy fellow — an innocent with a disturbing violent streak. Unlike Sandler’s usual characters, though, Barry actually deals with these qualities. In a standard Sandler vehicle, character traits are just devices to score easy laughs; here, they are genuine points of characterization. Anderson recognizes something about Sandler’s persona that isn’t the stuff of light comedy. When Mr. Deeds came out, I wrote: “With his rumpled clothing, boorish — occasionally psychotic (he doesn’t just punch people, he pummels them) — behavior, and his circa-1952 Jerry Lewis haircut, [Sandler's character] comes across more as a pathetic 30-something who never got past hanging out in shopping-center parking lots with his ‘buds.’ “
Barry Egan is Anderson’s loner variant on this. The change is not only brilliant and disturbing, but finally transforms Sandler’s standard persona into a genuinely sympathetic character. It makes him real. It makes him moving. It truly exposes a genuine pain and longing.
Barry is a sad man — abused by seven shrewish sisters — who can’t connect with anyone and is prone to uncontrollable fits of seemingly inexplicable crying. His efforts at getting anyone to help him are disastrous. When he confides his trouble to a brother-in-law, he quickly finds that confidence betrayed. When he desperately tries to use a phone-sex chat line to find someone to listen to him, he ends up being tormented, robbed and abused by sex-talk outfit’s owner (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who seems to think it morally acceptable to “punish” anyone who would make such a call. Nothing Barry can do — not even his scheme of amassing millions of frequent-flier miles through a mistake in a Healthy Choice pudding/American Airlines giveaway (this part of the movie is based on an actual event) — actually changes him. Much like the harmonium dropping into his life, help comes from the outside in the guise of a friend (Emily Watson) of one of his sisters. Her interest in him finally prompts him to take action, resulting in two of the most gloriously, unabashedly romantic moments the movies have seen since Moulin Rouge! — both peculiarly, but charmingly, set to Shelley Duvall singing Harry Nilsson’s “He Needs Me,” from Robert Altman’s Popeye.
And yet that’s not the entire point of the movie — though it is the highpoint. In fact, one of the things that pushes the film into the realm of greatness is that it constantly goes further than you expect it to and in ways that you can almost never guess. If all the picture did was return that rarest of commodities to the movies — the element of the audience genuinely wanting to know what’s going to happen next — Punch-Drunk Love would be worth your time. It just happens that does that — and a good deal more.