The New Cult Canon: Punch-Drunk Love

The New Cult Canon: Punch-Drunk Love

I don't get Adam Sandler. I sometimes find him funny, but I often have trouble seeing the human being behind the mush-mouthed infantilism and blind rage that constitute his screen persona. Sandler specializes in playing petulant man-children who act up until grown-up circumstances set them straight, but the second part of that equation has never felt authentic in any of his movies. Sandler really does seem like one of the 13-year-old boys that have been his bread-and-butter for years: He thrives on lowbrow jokes and violent slapstick, and his characters are pathologically self-centered and nearly incapable of generating compassion for anyone else. When he's finally forced to value his ridiculously hot wife and family in Click, or learn to run the family business in Billy Madison, he wears the vaguely sullen expression of a brat being forced to apologize to his sister, even if he doesn't really mean it. If the formula didn't require him to grow up—and Sandler is certainly a slave for formula—he'd play the naïf for eternity.

It would be wrong to say that P.T. Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love is the Adam Sandler movie for people who hate Adam Sandler movies. (Though that sentiment definitely applies to me.) For one, Anderson is an ardent fan of Sandler's work, and conceived this 90-minute comedy around him as a downshift—in scope, if not ambition—from Anderson's operatic opus Magnolia. But more importantly, Anderson succeeds in capturing Sandler's essence in a way that none of his star vehicles ever could. In Punch-Drunk Love, all those qualities that comprise the Sandler persona—the simpleton's innocence, the pained inarticulateness, the propensity for violence—have been sharpened and magnified. (Fortunately, Anderson had the good sense to excise Sandler's blue-collar posturing altogether.) It's a uniquely unsettling experience: Dark, tightly wound, and disturbingly arrhythmic, yet sweet and disarming, too, with more authentic feeling than anything else in Sandler's filmography.

Sandwiched between the epic achievements of Magnolia and There Will Be Blood, Punch-Drunk Love may seem like a minor work at first glance, but it's just as formally daring and adventurous. The act of casting a star of Sandler's caliber in a film this experimental is chancy enough, especially when you consider Sandler's stubborn entrenchment within a very narrow set of comedic parameters. Keith Phipps, in his Mr. Deeds review, puts it better than I ever could:

Which character to play, the smartass or the naïf? Which marketable but affordable actress should co-star? Which old friend will direct, Dennis Dugan or Steven Brill? What classic-rock staple will be featured prominently on the soundtrack, trailers, and television ads? Which fast-food chain will receive absurdly prominent placement? Answers for Mr. Deeds: The naïf, Winona Ryder, Brill, Pete Townshend's "Let My Love Open The Door," and the one with Frosties, chili, and Biggie fries.

For me, Punch-Drunk Love marked the moment when Anderson threw away the stylistic crutches of forbears like Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman, and came into his own as an original filmmaker. That doesn't mean he's discarded these and other influences altogether, which isn't something he could or would want to do. But Punch-Drunk Love has a unique texture that's unmistakably Anderson's, marked by a wired, coked-up intensity and a yen for discord. It's a film that sets viewers on edge from the start, almost daring you not to like it. And considering how shamelessly Sandler's other films work to ingratiate themselves to the audience, that alone is an achievement.

Anderson kicks off the film in typically audacious fashion: In the early morning, Barry Egan (Sandler), the boss of a novelty plunger (or "funger") operation, wanders out of his nondescript L.A. warehouse space and peers out onto the street. Suddenly, a car blows out a tire and cartwheels violently past his line of vision. Just as quickly, a van pulls up alongside him, a sliding door opens, and out comes a harmonium, slammed on the pavement in front of him. It's a surreal moment, with one bizarre incident following another and no discernable relationship between the two, like some sort of cosmic non sequitur. There's no use trying to force a connection between the two events, or even ponder what force beckoned Barry to the streets to begin with. What's important is that we get a good sense of the chaos that swirls around him and taunts him, beckoning him into startling outbursts. He's a Bruce Banner type—an ordinary guy who turns into a green smashing monster when he's pushed too far.

Every aspect of Barry's life is humbling, even humiliating: He peddles plungers to hotel chains for a living, fields calls from seven sisters who make him the focus of their attention and love to embarrass him, lives in a tiny apartment with cheap blinds and IKEA-quality furniture, and tries to salve his loneliness by collecting frequent flyer miles for trips he'll never take and chatting up a woman named "Georgia" on a phone-sex line, only to get extorted for money. One of his sisters pushes him to meet a workmate, but Barry seems so mortified by his life that he tries to squirm out of the meeting. When his sister finally drags her friend Lena Leonard (Emily Watson) into the warehouse for an introduction, Barry scrambles to make a good impression. This clip only shows the second half of perhaps the film's greatest sequence, as Barry makes conversation with Lena while trying to cover up the multitude of mishaps around him.

As hard as Barry tries to put a gloss on his situation, he's no good at hiding his flopsweat; it's clear to anyone who cares to look that his life is falling apart like the splitting seams on a cheap blue suit. Yet Lena calmly looks past the chaos and likes what she sees, which puts her in a category of female romantic leads that my cohort Nathan Rabin calls the "manic pixie dream girl," after Kirsten Dunst's character in Elizabethtown. MPDGs are whimsical, improbably gorgeous creatures that materialize out of nowhere and are somehow moved to adopt feeble protagonists who are barely holding onto the bottom rung. Where most women would seek romantic fulfillment elsewhere, MPDGs work their rejuvenating charm on broken men, like Will Smith working the hitch out of Matt Damon's golf swing in The Legend Of Bagger Vance. And what do they expect in return? Precious little.

The Lena character really shouldn't work, for the reasons most MPDGs don't work, because she offers up the full force of her charisma (and patience) and doesn't get back what she puts in. Yet the casting here is key: Watson's signature role in Lars von Trier's Breaking The Waves, as a deeply religious woman who devotes herself to her husband with equal fervor, emphasizes her childlike innocence even when it's tarnished by repeated degradation. Watson projects that innocence again in Punch-Drunk Love and recognizes it in Sandler's Barry, which forgives him a lot of sins throughout the film, like when he smashes up a restaurant bathroom on their first date, or abandons her at a hospital to seek revenge on the men who put her there. Their relationship is pure romantic fantasy, but they make an odd sort of sense together. How many other couples could share pillow talk like this?

Not enough can be said about the importance of Jon Brion's score, which is as much a part of the fabric of the film as, say, Philip Glass' music for Mishima or Clint Mansell and the Kronos Quartet's work on Requiem For A Dream. At its most dissonant, like in the clip above where Lena meets Barry at the warehouse, the music threatens to trample the comedy, because the various percussive clangs in Brion's music are violent and arrhythmic, too disturbing for laughs. But I think the lack of laugh-out-loud comedy is a fair trade-off for getting such a strong, visceral impression of what it's like to live in Barry's world, where nothing seems to play in tune. Yet when Barry finally finds refuge in Lena's arms, Brion's orchestration becomes incredibly lush and inviting, as delicate string arrangements overcome the din. The miracle of the score is that it covers such a broad range of emotional territory while still sounding like a single, cohesive piece of music. (Based on this and Jonny Greenwood's There Will Be Blood score, Anderson is clearly in another league when it comes to collaborating with musicians.)

Seeing Punch-Drunk Love didn't turn me around on Sandler, though I acknowledge that the movie wouldn't exist without him. (For comedic rage, he has nothing on Philip Seymour Hoffman, who easily steals the few scenes he's in as the Provo sleazebag behind the sex-chat scam.) I tend to think of Punch-Drunk Love as a movie built less around Sandler the actor than Sandler the cultural phenomenon. Had he been a complete unknown, I don't think the casting would have worked, but in light of Sandler's career playing belligerent juveniles in an adult body, Anderson's stunt pays dividends that wouldn't have been possible with another actor in the lead. It's weird to consider that those precious hours wasted on the likes of The Waterboy and Little Nicky now seem productive, but Anderson comes closer than anyone ever has (or will) in figuring out the Sandler enigma. And that's some kind of achievement.

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Filed Under: Film

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