When director Paul Thomas Anderson announced he intended to make a film with Adam Sandler, the film world thought he had gone insane. How could a filmmaker as talented as Anderson, who has treated all of his subjects, even the adult picture industry, in his films with care and respect, work with the actor who is the king of crudity and immaturity? This was my thought before seeing Punch-Drunk Love, but after watching it, I knew what Anderson’s intentions were for the movie. The director of Magnolia and Boogie Nights knows better than almost anyone how to make a brilliant character study, and with Punch-Drunk Love, he further proves this claim. Punch-Drunk Love is as masterfully made as Anderson’s other films, and it’s a superb picture.
Sandler stars in the film as Barry Egan, an executive of a company that sells plungers. Despite his title, Barry isn’t a wealthy man and he’s trapped in his own world of loneliness and grief. Barry has seven sisters, all of whom constantly mock him and try to control and manipulate his life, criticizing every part of it. Barry tries to hide his feelings from others, but he can’t always do so. At a family dinner, he explodes with rage and breaks a glass window.
Barry is an Adam Sandler character, but Punch-Drunk Love is not an Adam Sandler movie. I’m not a fan of Sandler; I dislike his movies not just because of his blatant product placement, mean spiritedness, and lazy humor, but also because of the one dimensionality of his characters. The roles Sandler typically plays are one-note jokes, adding nothing but vulgar punch lines and excessive slapstick humor. Paul Thomas Anderson must have noticed this, and in Punch-Drunk Love fixes the flaws of Sandler’s characters. Barry shares elements of past Sandler roles like in Billy Madison or Mr. Deeds but Barry has more emotional depth. Not only is he a more likeable character, but it more relatable for viewers, just like Frank T. J. Mackey in Magnolia or Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights.
Barry’s life soon turns when he meets Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), a woman he falls in love with. The two go to a diner where Barry tries to hide his inner persona, but in a fit of rage tears up a bathroom. Barry’s inner struggle with himself, as well as a conflict with a phone sex number, threatens his relationship with Lena.
What makes Punch-Drunk Love such an extraordinary film is Sandler himself. After watching this movie, I couldn’t believe this is the same man who starred in Happy Gilmore and Grown Ups. Sandler is committed in his performance, hitting the all the right emotional notes. He can make viewers laugh in one scene and make them cry in another. Anderson always brings out the best performances of actors and in Punch-Drunk Love this is clearly evident.
Perhaps Punch-Drunk Love could be noted as a transition for Paul Thomas Anderson. While Punch-Drunk Love shares traits of Anderson’s earlier movies, like the emotional range of Magnolia and Boogie Nights, it focuses on one character and his world rather than the expansive universes in those two movies mentioned. In fact, the style of Punch-Drunk Love, with its hypnotic pacing and beating score, bears a closer resemblance to Anderson’s most recent movies, There Will Be Blood and The Master. But while Punch-Drunk Love is a smaller picture than Anderson’s other ones, it is no less impressive. Anderson makes use of his sweeping camera angles and utilizes shots that live up to the director’s name. He won the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2002, which was well deserved.
Punch-Drunk Love is a great film, impressing on the levels of visuals, storytelling, and acting. While I would not put it in the same league of mastery as Magnolia or There Will Be Blood, Punch-Drunk Love is further evidence why Anderson is the best director of his generation.