Posts Tagged ‘Punch Drunk Love’

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 29th May 2003: 

Principles are important in life. To this day I can proudly affirm that no, I have never rustled cattle, taken a bogus sicky, or impersonated a member of the Polish parliament. But this world is naught but change and I’m afraid that one of the more cherished of these claims is no longer true, because – and believe me, starting the Twelve-Step programme was a walk in the park compared to making a declaration like this one – I have paid to see an Adam Sandler movie at the cinema.

Don’t be too harsh with me, please, because the film in question is not of the same ilk as the stuff that Sandler usually delights us with. This time round he’s in Punch Drunk Love, the latest offering from Paul Thomas Anderson, the man behind Magnolia and Boogie Nights. Both those films were very long and very busy. Punch Drunk Love is not.

Sandler plays Barry Egan, a Los Angeles bathroom-fittings supplier. Barry has grown up with seven domineering sisters and as a result of this his screws are wound just a bit too tight. Most of the time he is a quiet if slightly neurotic fellow, but occasionally he explodes into bouts of berserk violence against inanimate objects.

But Barry is about to find an outlet for his emotions when he meets Lena (Emily Watson), a co-worker of one of his sisters. Their romance is, however, made somewhat unorthodox by the oddness of Barry’s life. A harmonium is inexplicably deposited on the sidewalk outside his office, and of course he feels the need to appropriate it. Barry is also involved in a very peculiar scam to claim air-miles from a pudding promotion. And to top it all off he is also being blackmailed by the proprietor of a phone-sex chat line (Philip Seymour Hoffman) he unwisely made use of one night.

There’s really no other way of putting it: this is a strange, strange film. Anderson seems to tear up the rulebook, not just of the rom-com genre (which this arguably is, albeit in a rather strained way), but of cinema itself. He uses long takes for much of the action, an impressive feat in itself given how complex some of the scenes are. A car-crash occurs out of nowhere at the end of a ten-second shot and is all the more startling for it. A repeated trick is to cut from a busy, noisy shot to one of stillness and quiet, or vice versa. The soundtrack reverberates with odd rhythms playing over and merging into one another.

This actually intersects quite well with the story, which has – if you’ll excuse a desperate oxymoron – a kind of surreal naturalism. The kind of things that happen in real life but never normally get shown in the movies do get shown in this one. Stuff happens in the background for no good reason and adds nothing to the plot. A preoccupied Sandler goes on a cross-country trip, carrying his office phone all the way with him. Anderson subverts the usual romance story – rather than showing us two people who instantly dislike each other, but who are thrown together and discover they actually get on rather well, Adam and Lena are smitten from the start – but find life throwing various bizarre obstacles in their way. He even manages the remarkable coup of making it credibly seem that the two leads may not end up together.

And as for the comedy – well, I thought this was quite a funny film, although I couldn’t tell you why, and while everyone in the cinema was laughing at least some of the time, it wasn’t always together. Most of the time this is down to Sandler flying off the handle or committing some odd social faux pas. He’s hugely likeable throughout the film and while his aptitude for broad physical comedy should not come as a great shock, his ability to hold his own in a dramatic scene with Philip Seymour Hoffman should. Emily Lloyd has a slightly tricky, reactive role opposite him, but she turns in another impeccable performance.

It was always going to be a monumental challenge for Anderson to top Magnolia, one of the very best films of recent years, and probably wisely he’s opted to make a film that can’t really be compared to it, or to virtually anything else I can think of either. But its unique style and atmosphere make Punch Drunk Love a considerable achievement in its own right – just don’t expect a film like any other you’ve seen before.

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