Capsule Movie Review: Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

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Punch-Drunk Love

Romantic Comedy | 95 Minutes | 2002 | United States

* * * * *

Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) owns a warehouse which manufactures and sells novelty goods – toilet plungers with supposedly non-breakable handles and so on – but channels all of his hopes into one venture: having carried out his research diligently, and as far as the vagaries of the promotion will allow, he has come to understand that by purchasing gross quantities of Healthy Choice pudding, he will be able to amass as many as a million frequent flyer miles at a vastly favourable cost.

He sits alone in an empty corner of his warehouse, and drawn out into the street and the early morning light, witnesses a car crash before a cab drops off an unexplained harmonium. This harmonium seems to symbolise both the hollow in Barry’s heart, and the possibility for replenishment. He has seven sisters, teasing and overbearing, and is prone to violent thrusts of frustration. But fate keeps bringing him together with Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), a coworker of his sister Elizabeth (Mary Lynn Rajskub), and sharing an impulsive empathy for one another, he follows Lena to Hawaii and they consummate their fledgling romance. Only one thing stands in their way: lonely Barry has previously called a sex line, just to talk, but they are now extorting him for money, in an operation led by a raucous mattress salesman (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

After Magnolia (1999), Paul Thomas Anderson determined to make a 90-minute romantic comedy, and he wanted Adam Sandler for the lead role. But beyond the genre and the casting, the long twelve-minute opening sequence of Punch-Drunk Love establishes that this is a daring and experimental film, which shares at least as much with Eraserhead (1977) or Synecdoche, New York (2008) as it does with The Wedding Singer (1998) or Big Daddy (1999).

Jarring, enveloping electroacoustic sounds throb and hum and segue into orchestral swells, with prominent use of the harmonium in a score composed during filming by Jon Brion. Coloured abstractions – starscapes, unfurling flowers, cloud patterns, blocks and barriers – provide suggestive interludes, created by the artist Jeremy Blake. And Anderson draws from a wealth of classic cinema – Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955), the French New Wave, Robert Altman‘s Popeye (1980) – alongside his own imagination to conjure virtuosic shots, as when Barry and Lena kiss between passing throngs in a hotel in Honolulu.

This visceral film receives a subtle performance from Sandler, whose acting tends to be imparted with innocence and humanity, even in some of those roles where he is accused of bullying, or in the majority where he is perceived as too silly. Emily Watson, who has made her career in challenging parts with the world’s greatest directors, makes Lena more than Barry’s match: while we know less of her background, she displays a fierce understanding and an intense longing, somehow certain that she has found her man. And the scenes towards the climax of Punch-Drunk Love, where Sandler’s Barry and Hoffman’s mattress salesman Dean finally talk and then meet, are moments of hilarious, uproarious release.

Punch-Drunk Love is a constant surprise and delight. It is one of cinema’s most acute and emotional portrayals of desperation, of psychic confusion, and of the tender clasp and jubilant onrush of love.

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