is the best film Charlie Chaplin never made. Every time I see it it makes me want to just hug it and kiss it and whisper how much I love it into its ear.
It is also one of the darkest romantic comedies in, well, I don't really
have a point of reference, so maybe ever?
It's a beautiful, sloppy, colourful, loving embrace of a film. It plays as
if it's trapped somewhere between the cinema-as-a-state-of-mind of Scorsese's After
Hours with the tender, loving touch of the Little Tramp starring in a
classic Astaire and Rogers picture. This film's aesthetic is classic, simple, surreal
L.A. through and through
This was to be a minor film for its writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson
after his epic emotional train wreck of a masterpiece Magnolia (still
my vote for the best film of the 90s for anyone who cares) and that about fit's
this film's tone perfectly.
As opposed to the emotional vortex that threatened to destroy everything in its
path that was Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love is a quite, more ephemeral
love/art collage of a film about a sad/angry child trapped deep inside the
exterior frame of a man so reserved in his day-to-day that he has reduced
himself to simply getting by with being noticed as little as possible. It's a
mini-masterpiece, jaggedly cobbled together from Anderson's love of Adam
Sandler comedies, a sleazy mattress man, a beautiful muse and a
stranger-than-fiction true story of a marketing mistake that allowed people to
collect extra frequent flyer miles by purchasing cups of pudding.
This is Barry Egan, a strange man in a strange fitting blue suit. When we
meet him he's opening up shop for the day. He runs a business that sells
novelty bathroom plungers for which, I can only imagine, there is next to no
Barry has seven sisters who are planning a party this evening and keep
interrupting his business meetings for phone calls that bark out orders and
demean him based on his choice of words in expressing himself.
He smiles on, returns to reality, looks to the ground, buries the pain deep
and manages to croak out the fewest syllables possible that, contrary to his
belief, don't even go halfway to hiding his pain. This is a sad, unhappy,
misunderstood child with no sense of how to escape his mind and grow into the
man he should by now be.
But before any of this, Barry opens the shutter doors, looks down the
parking lot with his morning thermos in hand and sees a horrific and completely
unexplained vehicle accident, abruptly followed by a van, which pulls up, drops
a harmonium just as unexpectedly onto the curb and leaves. Barry is horrified;
doesn't know what to do; takes cover inside. Such a violent eruption followed
by such a beautiful and innocent artifact. The tone for the film has been set.
Barry peeks out from around the corner. The harmonium is still there. He
goes to fetch it. This is maybe the first source of comfort Barry has ever had
in his life. The music they make together is sad and yet poignant to the point
So Barry, very reluctantly, goes to a party his sisters are throwing where
they all remind him of the time they were calling him gay boy and he got so mad
he threw a hammer through the window. He claims he doesn't remember, the truth
plainly being that he doesn't want to remember and doesn't particularly need to
be reminded either.
He loses it, kicks in the sliding glass doors, and then asks his doctor
brother-in-law if he can help him. Sometimes he doesn't like himself and cries
for no reason. "Barry, I'm a dentist, “is the reply he gets. Barry is so
far reserved from reality that even his attempts to get help come off as
misinformed and pathetic. He needs help but doesn’t know where to begin in
trying to get it.
Then two things happen. In a desperate need to talk to someone, Barry calls
a phone sex line and ends up being blackmailed for money he doesn't have by a
mattress man played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who's introductory shot is one
of those great Hollywood look-who-it-is moments and comes, not as a mild surprise,
but as if hurled at the screen with intent. Does anyone but Anderson shoot
films like this in Hollywood anymore? Could anyone but Hoffman have made such
an impactful entrance without yet a single word of dialogue?
He also, very reluctantly as well, meets Lena (Emily Watson, maybe never lovelier).
She's a friend of the one sister who actually seems to want to communicate with
Barry and thinks that they should go on a date. Barry doesn't agree but Lena
talks him into it.
These are the two single most important events in Barry's life.
The remainder of the film sees Barry completely smitten with Lena, allowing
him an outlet for all of the childish love and beautify in his soul that he
only shared before with the harmonium to be given to and understood by a real
person. He is capable of love and so desperately wants it but has absolutely no
idea of how to act it out in physical form. Thankfully, Lena, the beauty in the
red dress, isn't afraid to see past his exterior and to help him along, a
little bit at a time. Maybe there truly is one perfect person for everyone
In one of the oddest and yet most touching scenes that comes to mind, Barry,
lying on top of her, tells Lena that she is so beautiful that he just wants to
get a hammer and smash her fucking face in. In the span of no more than a
second or two, she reflects, understands and responds that he makes her want to
gouge his eyes out. His response to this is, as expected, quiet and awkward,
but for him, plays more like rapture. Not only has he found a love in his life,
but he's found his Venus de Milo.
No explanation is ever given as to why this angel would love this strange
little man-child, and yet, just as when the blind girl laid eyes on the Little
Tramp for the first time in City Lights, the moment is so poignant
it's hard to hold the tears of joy back. All the while Anderson paints a
beautiful visual portrait of light and colour around these two.
I wanted to have one final word on Adam Sandler. When Punch-Drunk Love
first came out in 2002 most of the initial reviews felt the film was minor by
Anderson standards but was still a point of interest for the deep notes of pain
and internal strife that Adam Sandler was able to find.
Say what you will about Sandler and his usual angry-man-child with funny
voices shtick, this is a great performance that understands the depth and
sadness of Barry Egan and how he confuses not dealing with things as the same
as concealing them from the world.
And so now, for the rest of eternity, Adam Sandler will have his name on one,
lone masterpiece in which he perfectly brought a character to life that stands
totally on it’s one while also being worth comparing to the Little Tramp. He'll
probably never be in anything this good again but that is, at the end of the
day, more than most actors will ever achieve.