Thursday, February 12, 2009

Punch-Drunk Love

Following the highly-lauded ensemble drama Magnolia, modern auteur Paul Thomas Anderson scaled things way back, offering up a surreal romantic comedy called Punch-Drunk Love. Reviews were mixed, which is just as well since I hated Magnolia so there was nowhere to go but up for me. In hindsight, Punch-Drunk Love, though wildly different in story and theme, firmly points towards the direction he would take with his masterpiece There Will Be Blood.

Adam Sandler reaches into the darker side that always came with his comedy and expands it into a full force as Barry Egan, an executive at a small company that makes novelties toiletries. He tends to avoid any lasting conversation and especially fears phone calls from his seven sisters, who torment him in that way that seems playful to them but never to the person being teased. We see him ably speaking to a potential client before he answers a phone call, but when he picks up the receiver and hears one of his sister's voices you can see something change in him immediately: he stutters, avoids simple questions and generally looks like a caged animal looking for an escape.

At the start of the film, Barry gets to work before anyone else to find a truck has dumped a harmonium out front. He runs and hides behind a wall as if afraid it will see him. A woman, Lena (Emily Watson), drives up and asks Barry if he would take her car keys and give them to the auto mechanic next door when they open. Later we learn that she set this up because she spotted a picture of Barry on one of his sister's desks at work. She seems to know about Barry's mental instability but is attracted to him anyway.

Barry's psychosis comes to the fore when he attends his sister's birthday party. He arrives at her house, opens the door hears his sister's laughing over an old story about how they teased him, tries to leave unnoticed, then opens the door to go back in. At the party, he tries to speak calmly but flubs words as his sisters open old wounds. Finally, he can take no more and kicks out the glass doors.

Lena eventually asks Barry on a date, and he nervously accepts. When they go to a restaurant, he mentions how he's buying up pudding cups to exploit a frequent flier miles giveaway (based on a true story). The two hit it off, until Lena brings up something Barry's sister told her about his childhood, and Barry excuses himself to the bathroom, which he promptly destroys. Of course he is thrown out of the restaurant, but Lena follows along as if nothing happened. I cannot say what Lena sees in Barry. Maybe it's the fact that she's an only child and envies someone who grew up surrounded by siblings, or perhaps she realizes that, because Barry grew up surrounded by his teasing sisters, he feels as lonely as she. Then again, maybe she just has latent S&M tendencies and loves Barry for his violent streak.

Barry feels something too, though he doesn't know how to act upon it. He's found someone who not only managed to see through that placid mask he presents to the world and understands his inner fury to be something more than "weirdness" as his sisters label it, but to love him anyway. When Lena heads to Hawaii, Barry drags his friend (Luis Guzman) along to all the grocery stores in town to clean out pudding cups, only to find that the company takes 6-8 weeks to process his claim for the flier miles. After a mild freak out, Barry just buys a damn ticket. It's a simple moment, but quietly hilarious and touching. The two meet on Waikiki Beach in the kind of perfect moment that normally would earn a groan, but works in a film that never lets on in what direction it's heading.

Early on, Barry calls a phone sex service though not, we sense, because he wants the actual service. He speaks to a woman who tries to stimulate him, but he sounds almost confused by the instructions she gives him, as if he doesn't know what to do. The next morning she calls back and tries to extort money from him, sending four "blond brothers" to strongarm him when he refuses. Barry gives up $500 in the hopes that they go away, but reconsiders later and demands his money back. Eventually he must face down the brothers as well as a Utah porn king (Philip Seymour Hoffman), both of which play out completely unexpectedly.

What links Punch-Drunk Love to There Will Be Blood is Anderson's bleak, unsettling direction. Where Daniel Plainview stood in the middle of a vast nothingness and somehow rose above it, Barry walks down the bright-lit aisles of a grocery store that look so bland compared to the man in the blue suit who travels among them, yet they swallow him whole. Later, when Barry goes to another store to get the cups he needs to get to Hawaii to see Lena, he stands above the aisles, a man now willing to join the world instead of hide within it. The film also calls to mind the surreality of Magnolia with its disorienting backgrounds and its bright color wash. After their first date, Barry takes Lena back to her place, and leaves. When he reaches the lobby, she calls him to invite him back for a kiss, resulting in an amusing bit where Barry roams back through the identical looking hallways before finally stumbling upon the right door.

Sandler's performance may seem like an anomaly for him, but there's always been a violent streak in his comedies: Happy Gilmore, Billy Madison, Big Daddy: all feature characters given to violent outbursts, but they're filtered through the ridiculous for humor. Though Barry is just as explosive, Sandler plays him with an isolation that lends itself to both frightening drama and pitch-black comedy.

Punch-Drunk Love isn't on the level of Anderson's two best films, Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood, but it serves to bridge the two eras of his career while still being a thoroughly entertaining film in its own right. It's the best kind of film: one you don't see coming, and the excellent acting from the two main characters is excellent (PSH steals his scenes as well). It may be just a bit too "arty" in some places, and the harmonium adds little to the story, either literally or symbolically, but this is a surprisingly tender film wrapped in a terrifying black dramedy and a triumph from America's most promising young director.

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