By William C. Benker
Punch-Drunk Love – 2002 – dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
A great director has the ability to re-envision an age-old genre with his own artistic spin. In the case of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love, the romantic-comedy gets an edge it never really had before. Gritty realism is not often found in your everyday date movie, but when the lonely protagonist, Barry Egan (Adam Sandler), calls a sex-hotline the day before he meets the girl of his dreams (Emily Watson), problems ensue. The film doesn’t harbor on its protagonist’s pathetic attempts at over-the-phone love, but instead explains the character through a variety of personal triumphs. His dream-woman is already present, but learning to come to grips with himself is the real problem. Did I mention the protagonist is Adam Sandler?
Families of the protagonist in a “rom-com” are often quirky, outrageous or strictly conservative. Barry’s sisters (all seven of them) are gossipy, irritating, self-absorbed bullies. They don’t treat him with respect and despite only really getting to know one of them, the audience quickly understands that they’ve patronized their brother for too long. PTA uses the sisters like the chorus in a play, explaining Barry’s meek, self-conscious personality, with a barrage of incoherent banter at a family party. Showing his disdain for the situation, in a familiar Sandler move, Barry smashes several windows of the house after only a few minutes. PTA’s ability to hone in on an actor’s strong points is really illustrated in this scene, especially after he seeks psychological advice from his sister’s husband, a dentist. Still, the conventional portrayal of the hero’s family is turned-upside down, through the obnoxious chatter of Barry’s entourage.
Despite his dysfunctional army of sisters, Barry is crafty enough to capitalize on a promotional offering of free flyer-miles on individual packages of pudding. Did you get that? (It’s a true story!) Freedom is just around the corner, but he’s having trouble breaking away. During their first date, Lena (Watson) tells him that she knows he used to have fits of rage as a child. Barry can’t help but express his fury in the privacy of the restaurant bathroom. Yet Lena understands, offering her sympathy. This isn’t an entire film about winning the girl (he’s already won); but is he confident enough to accept the still so foreign concept of empathy that she offers? In this sense, Punch-Drunk Love ditches the formulaic construction of romance in place of an examination of Barry’s acceptance of a stronger personality (Lena).
The most overt symbol of Barry’s persona lies within the awkward tones of a harmonium he finds in the middle of the street. PTA isn’t as interest in the physical threat as much as the emotional one. The sex-hotline people harass Barry for money and even endanger his life at one point, but these actions drive only the secondary plot forward. The harmonium’s broken tones slowly form a melody that Barry continuously toys with in times of stress, reflecting Jon Brion’s musical score that plays throughout the film. Unlike the usual romance picture that’s usually filled with dozens of songs from your high school prom, Brion’s score keeps the pacing of the film, often times mirroring Barry’s intensity and foreshadowing a tactic PTA will use again in There Will Be Blood.
Punch-Drunk Love approaches romance realistically, not as a fantasy driven spectacle, but an introverted compromise of personalities. It might take a couple of watches to really extrapolate the comedy from the film, but Barry’s frustration and Lena’s straightforward nature makes them a good match. Not a perfect match, as much as Hollywood would like to imagine there is, but a complementary one. What PTA infuses within the film is an alternative to the mainstream focus. In order for Barry to find love, he’s got to break out of his shell to get it. And fortunately for the audience, Adam Sandler breaking stuff is usually pretty funny.