Punch Drunk Love
review by Gregory Avery, 8 November 2002

When we first see Barry, the protagonist played by Adam Sandler in P.T. Anderson's film, Punch-Drunk Love, he is dressed in an indigo-blue, formal-cut suit, speaking into a telephone with the assured, polished, seemingly informed manner of what some would describe as "telephone communications skills". Does he spend all his time on the contraption? No. Barry runs a sanitary supply company (institutional toilet plungers with unbreakable handles, for example) out of a storage unit in the arid wastes of Sherman Oaks, and he is also pecked at by not one, but seven, sisters, who know how to aim their darts to keep him in his place. "Why are you wearing that suit?" one of them asks, making it sound like a withering putdown, while sashaying into Barry's workplace.

Barry takes this thoughtless cruelty with the amiable patience of someone who knows better and is trying to keep the peace, but he is prone, as he confesses to one of his brothers-in-law, to sudden crying jags, and to taking out his frustration in sudden gusts of fury on inanimate objects such as plate-glass windows. Something must be done, but the question is who? That's answered by the arrival of Lena (Emily Watson, who looks, and acts, splendid): she sees something in Barry and likes it and doesn't want to see it go away, just yet. Barry, in turn, is charmed by Lena crossing-paths with him, not once but several times, and suspects that she may be the right ticket for him, as well. We, in the audience, can see that Barry does not need to end up getting permanently stamped as  "damaged goods" (to quote a great friend and brother of mine who might have used that exact same adjective upon seeing this film), and that Lena might be the one to help restore balance and order in his existence.

As you may have suspected if you've gotten this far, it rapidly becomes clear that this is not the Adam Sandler who was thwacking people, hard, with golf clubs in Happy Gilmore. In the past, Sandler used an innocuous, seemingly guileless quality to lure people into watching, and laughing, at situations you wouldn't normally consider to be funny and which you still would consider to be more painful than funny (and this trickster quality was what probably made me feel particularly sour towards that work). Here, Anderson (and Sandler) separates out the guileless quality in Sandler and refines it so that the character of Barry approaches a state of true devotion, even purity. All Barry wants is someone whom he can make happy and, in so doing, achieve happiness in return, and he is very uncomplicated and direct about this.

The first part of the film is staged and shot (with cinematographer Robert Elswit) so that Barry seems to be living inbetween glares of light and in the fine space between large, undefined spaces---as if he were toiling away along the edges of things. When Lena enters, the picture literally opens out, and the scenes take on great clarity. (They're also accompanied by a beautiful, and brilliant, orchestrated sound-and-music score by Jon Brion.) Some of the tumultuous business which keeps getting in the way and threatening to separate Barry and Lena -- like all that chasing around Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn did with Asta the dog in Bringing Up Baby -- includes a scheme whereby Barry can accumulate an astronomical amount of frequent-flier miles, and a phone-sex scam (like at the beginning, where Barry turns out to have been speaking with a telephone solicitor, all he wanted was someone to talk to for a while) which results in his being pursued and intimidated by a group of thugs (led by Philip Seymour Hoffman) who operate out of, of all places, Provo, Utah. (What? they couldn't get tickets to see The Singles Ward?) This latter creates a situation whereby Barry can use some of his pent-up frustration to some righteously indignant use. But the film is haunting. There's a gorgeous moment where Barry reunited with Lena, in silhouette and longshot, that's precisely executed and emotionally sweeping. And when the two characters embrace in close-up, and Barry finds safe harbor in the cleft of Lena's neck and shoulder, they could be lovers clutching each other amidst the whirlwind, and the film in that moment assumes an air of desperate, aching romanticism.  Anderson is trying for something very special in this picture, and the results are audacious. He takes risks, goes way out on a limb, and just about pulls it off.

Written and
Directed by:

P.T. Anderson

Starring:
Adam Sandler
Emily Watson
Mary Lynn Rajskub
Luis Guzman
Philip Seymour Hoffman

Rating:
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult
guardian
.

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