Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Punch-Drunk Love: The Best Movie Charlie Chaplin Never Made

Punch-Drunk Love 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 current demand.

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 of beauty.

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 after all.

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.


  1. Wow. This is a wonderful post about a film that I really love. It's too bad about Sandler, who took the modest box-office take for this movie as a sign that he shouldn't stick his neck out too far. At least, that's the way it looks from most of his choices. Magnolia is one of my favorite movies, but Punch-Drunk Love isn't that far away. I've admired PT Anderson's last two movies, but not in the same emotional way as the Magnolia/Punch-Drunk Love duo.

  2. Thank you good sir! Well at least Sandler tried with Spanglish and Reign Over Me or whatever it was called where he looked like Bob Dylan and had his family killed in 9/11. At least he's tried to show depth again and can be good (he's quite good in Funny People) but I think it had to do with Punch-Drunk Love being written specifically for him. Ah Magnolia is indeed a masterpiece among masterpieces.