PUNCH DRUNK LOVE
BY MATTHEW SANTINI
Watching “Punch Drunk Love” is like attending an AA meeting for circus clowns. All of the jokes and makeup have been stripped away; left is only the ugliness, the anger, the discomfort. The characters lead lives of not-so-quiet desperation, barely managing to convince each other that all is well, yet screaming to the audience for help.
We could see from watching director Paul Thomas Anderson’s last movie, “Magnolia,” that he was headed for something like his latest effort. “Magnolia” showed us characters who were incredible actors in their own right, like the TV personalities whose public loved them but whose lives were crumbling around them. “Punch Drunk Love” shows us people without that fake-but-happy upside. We see only the demented underbelly, yet we don’t dare look away.
Adam Sandler stars as Barry Egan, a “nice man,” as he insists, who sells plungers from a dilapidated factory located in a washed out urban wasteland in LA. Dressed in a startling and funny-looking blue suit, the same suit he wears every day, he walks out to the street one morning at work. It is entirely quiet except for the pitter-patter of his footsteps and the sky looks wrong. The same sense pervades the rest of the film; it feels as if it’s always about to storm. The silence is rudely and violently interrupted as a car overturns and skids across the screen. Barry stares, detached and mute, as a cab pulls up, drops off a piano, and leaves. A woman momentarily arrives and asks to leave her car keys with Barry so he can give them to the auto body shop next door when they open. “There’s a piano in the street,” she says. Her name is Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), and she becomes the object of Barry’s obsession.
It’s uncomfortable to watch someone as painfully awkward as Barry. People are always talking about him like he isn’t there, even when they are talking to him. Barry has seven sisters, several of whom call him at work to remind him to come to one sister’s birthday party. He goes, and walks in on a conversation they are having about an embarrassing moment from his childhood; they continue anyway. “Remember we used to call you gay boy? You got so angry. Are you gay now?” “I dunno,” he replies. Barry says that a lot. The party doesn’t go so smoothly, and he confides in his brother-in-law that he needs psychological help. “I don’t like myself sometimes. I don’t know if there’s anything wrong because I don’t know how other people are.” “Barry, I’m a dentist.”
People like Barry just aren’t meant for dating; he calls a phone sex line instead, but we get the impression he’s not after the sexy dialogue so much as he’s after, well, the dialogue. No matter that he pays this woman to talk, at least she listens. Barry’s putrid brand of bad luck says hello again when this woman calls back, threatening him and extorting his money. Thugs batter Barry black and blue, but when Lena gets hurt, he sees red. He hunts down conman Dean Trumbell, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who he tells, “I have a love in my life that makes me stronger than anything you can imagine.”
The plot, though, is not what makes “Punch Drunk Love” compelling. The movie is not about anything entirely tangible, it’s about feelings; you feel Barry’s rage and despair just as much as you feel the blue in his suit. It’s about the way a skillful director like Anderson can wrench these emotions from your body. The film was promoted as a romantic comedy. There were plenty of people laughing in the theater, and there were plenty of people who weren’t. I was one of the people hugging his knees.
Barry Egan is a deconstruction of the Adam Sandler character. Anderson wrote the film; it’s like he cut out all the happiness from “Happy Gilmore” and pasted the remains onto Barry. He’s a complete social misanthrope given to fits of crying and uncontrollable rage. In one particularly voyeuristic scene, Barry excuses himself to the men’s room, onto which he unleashes his fury. Anderson positions the camera in the corner looking down on the action. The bathroom battle in “Liar Liar” was comical; this one is frightening and disturbing. The same can be said for Sandler’s performance; subtle and enthralling, terrifying but engaging, he turns the movie into a train wreck without the dead people. These are just words; they cannot impress the way Sandler does.
Anderson’s directing is particularly effective; he’s a malicious puppet master who knows how to torment his audience like he does Barry. Anderson presents a controversial situation and leaves it up the individual to laugh or cringe. The decision is not always an easy one. In a hotel room, Barry and Lena engage in post-coital pillow talk. “I’m looking at your face and I just want to mash it with a sledgehammer,” he says lovingly, to which Lena responds, “I want to scoop out your eyeballs and suck on them.” Are these two in love, or suffering from dementia?
Colors and sounds are as dizzying as the dialogue. There is the blue suit Barry wears; there’s something unsettling about the paradox of that clownish outfit on someone so tortured. Breaks between scenes are often filled with an explosion of colors that seems to intensify and mirror the emotional content of the film. And there’s that piano, or harmonium – what’s that thing for? It spends most of its time on Barry’s office desk, and playing it appears to calm his nerves. The soundtrack is anything but calming – so invasive and percussive, like the heartbeat of a cokehead.
I watched “Punch Drunk Love” with a grim fascination, and, afterwards, felt like Mike Tyson had eaten my children and run off with my wife. Barry Egan is such a tragic figure, a man whose life has so long been devoid of joy that he defends any scrap of happiness with horrifying ferocity. He has a terribly desperate need to be accepted and respected, to be treated as the nice man he knows he can be, and who we see him as, when we aren’t hiding our eyes.