Disappointing... yet brilliant

Random and not-so-random thoughts about movies

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Punch-Drunk Love

Director Paul Thomas Anderson Stars Adam Sandler, Emily Watson USA 2002 Language English 1 hr 35 mins Colour

Eccentric love story with astonishing sound design

Maybe I’m wrong, but I suspect that most people who have an opinion on the matter consider Punch-Drunk Love to be the runt in Paul Thomas Anderson’s litter. Unlike The Master or Magnolia, it’s not obviously about big themes. Unlike Boogie Nights, it didn’t have a cast packed with once and future stars. Unlike There Will Be Blood, it easn’t a showcase for the work of the endlessly admired Daniel Day-Lewis. Instead, it’s a romance starring Adam Sandler. And therein may lie the problem.

Sandler is enormously popular, and for a long time was the best-value-for-money leading man in Hollywood, but respected (other than by studio accountants)? Not so much. Unlike, say, Daniel Day-Lewis, at whom awards are freely flung.

But I’ve never really got the Day-Lewis thing – his total immersion business creating (in the relatively few films I have seen of his, which doesn’t admittedly include My Left Foot) mannered performances that make me think of a joyless version of Johnny Depp. Adam Sandler, on the other hand, made a string of films I enjoyed: The Waterboy, Happy Gilmore and, most of all The Wedding Singer. I remember seeing it with my whole family in the much-missed Riviera Cinema in Teignmouth and we all loved it. He has, admittedly, made a considerable number of truly terrible films since.

There’s a subtle difference between the way Anderson uses Sandler Punch Drunk Love and what he did with Tom Cruise in Magnolia. In both cases, the director knows he has hired a film star rather than a character actor. But with Cruise he pushes further – it’s a brilliant, revelatory performance in which the star seems to finally acknowledge the creepiness inherent in his normal screen persona, but which is usually ignored because he is a mainstream leading man. What if we agree that his character in Top Gun manages to be both a narcissist and a stalker, that there is always something wholly unnerving about that grin and that strange stare, that inability ever to look relaxed?*

Sandler’s Barry Egan in Punch Drunk Love, immature, socially inept and given to moments of explosive violent rage, is in many ways close to the characters he plays in the (unapologetically crude) comedies that made his name. What’s different is the context. It’s very simple story, in a way: lovely Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), grown-up, smart, but apparently lonely, sees a picture of Barry and decides he’s for her. This is more good luck that Barry deserves, but he proceeds to do his best to sabotage things.

But none of that explains the texture of this film. First and foremost is the extraordinary sound design. Some noises have been heightened, sometimes it goes silent, but there is always something happening. It’s something you might expect from a short, or a film shown in a art gallery, but not a whole feature. You could regard it as a gimmick, but it works, and reminds you that it’s normally only horror movies (and David Lynch, if you choose to regard him as outside the horror genre) that seem interested in the considerable possibilities of non-musical noise. And of course, standard ‘realistic’ film noise, like camera focus, is unnaturally flat: our perception of sound volumes in our surroundings is subjective and ever-changing – just think of what happens when you’ve been reading something in the office and are interrupted, or the shock silence of power cut when you realise how fucking loud the fridge is the rest of the time.

In the best possible way, Punch-Drunk Love feels like an experiment: it’s Anderson saying, what if I shoot it this way? What if there is a lense flare** everywhere? What if you make an odd little indie love story and have Adam Sandler in the middle of it? What if the lead character spends a lot of time trying to explain a great air miles offer on packs of pudding and no one listens to him? What if Philip Seymour Hoffman gives one of the less satisfying performances of his character because actor and director have agreed to try something, just to see whether it works? What if you stick a harmonium in the middle of an office and let the audience search for the meaning in that?

In terms of Paul Thomas Anderson’s career, it’s an interesting moment. It seemed like something of a sidestep, away from the huge ensemble casts of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, away from the shadows of Scorsese and Altman (although there is something Altmanesque about the one scene with Barry’s seven sisters). It’s uncharacteristically short, and uncharacteristically sweet.

But if The Master is a synthesis of everything that Anderson has done so far, and I very much think it is, then Punch-Drunk Love is surprisingly high in the mix. The sound design is one obvious legacy, but Barry’s destructiveness, loneliness, violence, improvisational skills, sense of being at odds with the world, he shares with The Master’s Freddie Quell as played by Joaquin Phoenix.

Beyond that, though, Punch-Drunk Love is a film I’m very fond of in its own right. The sensory overload of the visuals and sound (do see it in a cinema, if you ever get the chance), Emily Watson’s eyes, the way that it draws us into this improbable romance… It’s a film a lot of people struggled with at the time, and for many Sandler is an impossible barrier to enjoyment, but I think it deserves a chance.

*Maybe the best use of that Cruiseness in a mainstream film is A Few Good Men, where is his character’s pure will-to-win, rather than any sense of compassion or sense of right, that leads to justice in the end.

**Before it became JJ Abrams’ annoying trademark.

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