catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 1, Num 6 :: 2002.11.22 — 2002.12.05


The risk and reward of Punch Drunk Love

Paul Thomas Anderson, the writer/director of Punch Drunk Love, has taken massive risks in every film he has ever made, and this is no exception.

Punch Drunk Love is fantastic, and it is incredibly risky. Both Anderson and its star, Adam Sandler, evolve by leaps and bounds. Together, both actor and director create a completely original film with its own logic, sense of humor, and beauty. Everything in this film is exaggerated to the extreme, especially the main character, Barry Egan. He is unsure of himself, enclosed in his own self-hatred and fear. He communicates clumsily, and his failed attempts at explaining himself lead him to inappropriate eruptions of painful emotions. It is hard to imagine anyone else playing this role besides Adam Sandler, primarily because it plays to his strengths, which are wild, sociopathic outbursts and hidden paranoia and self-loathing. As opposed to his previous roles, he is able to channel himself deeper into his character instead of having to rely on off-color jokes told in funny voices. I never thought I would be able to empathize with Adam Sandler, but in Punch Drunk Love he has proven me wrong.

Here's a good example: early in the film Barry arrives at one of his sister's house for a birthday party that he originally did not want to attend because another sister would be bringing a friend (who later turns out to be his love interest, Lena, played by Emily Watson) whom she wants to set up with him. His excuses were that he wasn't very good at that type of thing, and everyone would be looking him, plus he says he has to stay home to renew his gym membership. He finally does show up, but as he walks in the front door, he overhears his sisters talking about an incident when they were kids in which Barry got so mad from being called "gay boy" by his sisters that he threw a hammer through a patio door. They all laugh at the story, at him, and remind him again that they used to call him gay boy. He goes in to meet his other sisters and all their husbands. The place is crawling with people and a thousand conversations bombard Barry. He makes his rounds while everyone makes their banal greetings and quips, and you can see Barry squirming.

His awkwardness seeps from his pores; it's so thick that I can feel on my skin. I can understand a situation like that where everyone is talking in their own conversations and you've already been belittled as you walk in the door, albeit unintentionally. I know Barry's awkwardness and isolation at that moment. I can't explain what it's like to feel that way, but I don't have to because I think this scene does it so well. Finally, his emotions boil over and he kicks and shatters the patio door just as everyone is sitting down for dinner. It's a jarring bit of action and may not make sense to everybody, but it does to me. If you can't understand why Barry did what he did, you probably will not be able to understand this movie. He is a lonely, socially-inept man's id, and he does not have the censor mechanism that keeps other people from expressing the overwhelming frustration and helplessness that can appear in moments like those.

To be sure, Barry Egan is an exaggerated character, but so is the plot and so is the entire movie. Barry meets this girl named Lena, a friend of his sister. Lena saw a picture of Barry and wanted to meet him, so she tries to set up a "random" encounter that will give her a chance to meet him. From the first time they lay eyes on each other, it is Lena who must do most of the work. She wants him, and he wants her, but his awkwardness and fear keep him from accepting the fact that she actually likes him. This is understandable because Lena's affection for him makes little sense. Why would anyone love a guy as messed up and strange as Barry? But Lena loves Barry from the start.

Punch Drunk Love is not psychological realism, and anyone demanding an in-depth study of why Barry is the way he is will not find it. Anderson makes no attempt to explain Barry or his actions. Instead, he is more interested in exploring how his characters get out of their situation. How characters escape from their own wretched lives has been a major preoccupation of Anderson's all the way back to his first film, Hard Eight, but most clearly demonstrated in his more recent work, Magnolia, in which a mosaic of petty and self-destructing characters are offered a chance for reconciliation through a bizarre act of God, a rain shower of frogs. In Punch Drunk Love, Barry's escape is evident almost from the start, and it is found in the inexplicable affection Lena has for him. For Barry, it is now simply matter of making that step. What proceeds, then, is the story of Barry's acceptance of her love.

Punch Drunk Love is a reworking of the romantic/screwball comedy. This well-established genre has a few simple bedrock rules: a maladroit boy meets the perfect woman who is impossibly out of reach. In the end, he wins her heart, but not before he almost blows it, saved only by the woman's glowing grace and kindness. Anderson extracts that final moment, that marvelous moment of grace and acceptance, and uses it as the structure of his film. Barry doesn't have to fight for her love; he is hounded by Lena to accept her love. She is the initiator of the relationship and prods him to continue, allowing him room to screw up and to admit his own failings and weaknesses which have kept him frozen in his own fear and self-hatred. Barry finally does make that final leap by flying to Hawaii on the spur of the moment in order to find Lena while she is on a business trip.

Meanwhile, Barry is also running from a group of bullies trying to extort him out of everything he has. He gets wrapped up in this scheme after calling a phone sex line in a desperate attempt just to talk to someone. The operator on the other end of the line tricks him into giving her his personal information, and she gives it to her boss. He sends four of his stooges to Barry's place to rough him up and get what they can from him. Initially, Barry stupidly tries to reason with these low-lifes, even taking the blame for money they steal from him, but they continue to harass him and he continues to cower in their presence.

This all changes when he returns from Hawaii with Lena. The thugs ram his car from the side with their pickup as Barry is pulling into his garage. Barry and Lena are sent spinning, and when they stop, he turns to see that she is bleeding from the head. The whole scene happens quickly and hits you hard. When I saw it, I became completely enraged and felt that I was almost unable to control my own actions. That's why it was so incredibly satisfying to see Barry, his awkward helplessness now transformed into pure focused action, get out of the car and expertly bring down all four guys with a tire iron. Perhaps I should not have taken so much pleasure in that violence, but when someone like Barry finds a person who loves him and that person is even remotely physically threatened, any hesitation and powerlessness that may have been there vanishes and the protector instinct buried deep inside comes out.

These sequences, like the rest of this movie, are more expressionistic than realistic. We see this film through the skewed perspective of Barry, and the misery these thugs put Barry through are better understood as a manifestation of Barry's fear. This is his bad dream: in a moment of weakness, he attempts to breach his isolation and make one little phone call, but now his worst fears have come to life, and he is being tormented for his attempts at making human contact. Yet Lena's love transforms him. Not only does he swiftly take care of these four goons, he then leaves to find the boss that sent them. When he finally stands face to face with his tormentor (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman), Barry walks straight up to him and announces that he "is stronger than you can ever imagine because I have love in my life." The scene is silly, tense, and hilarious all at the same time, but it is also true. In the majority of most movie romances, the story is concluded when the male finds the strength to win the woman's love, but Anderson twists this around. Instead of showing the strength that results in love, he shows the love that results in strength.

Again, this may all be a bit over the top, but this is Anderson's style. Subtlety does not seem to be in his vocabulary. His passion and presence as the creator of this film shine brightly in every frame, and he does not back away from making his intentions clear. This results in an incredibly self-conscious film, a work that screams at you to realize how silly this romance is, but at the same time how extraordinarily real and wonderful. You can use words like "metafilm" or "anti-movie," but that is misleading. It does not simply gleefully break down a genre and dance on the burning rubble left behind, nor is does it attempt to distance you from the story itself. Punch Drunk Love is not cold; it wants to draw you in, but as it does so, it strips the film of any pretenses and exposes to its audience the pure strangeness of the structure of love: this unfathomable gift is not just something we must do, but also something we must accept. The act of receiving love can often be as difficult a task as giving, no doubt, but just look at the results.

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