Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) has a hard time meeting people. He works out of a cavernous warehouse in the San Fernando Valley, where he has his own business: wholesale bathroom supplies. He comes to work every day, drinks coffee, makes phone calls, and oversees merchandise shipments. And he wears a vivid blue suit, just a notch down in hue from his warehouse walls. Surprised at the new look, his employee Lance (Anderson regular Luis Guzmán) asks why he’s wearing it. Barry shrugs: “I don’t know.”
Barry doesn’t know a lot. He’s frustrated, angry, prone to occasional violent outbursts, but can’t quite articulate what’s bothering him. And then, the perfect girl appears. Lena Leonard (Emily Watson) brings her car to the service shop next door to Barry’s warehouse. Watching from his warehouse door, gasps: “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” is all he can manage to say as he stumbles backwards, trying not to be caught looking. Like an angel, she’s dressed in a pink sweater and skirt, her blond hair in a pert bob, and she smiles when she asks him to look after her car until the service shop opens. Barry is instantly and completely clobbered by love.
In Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, Barry suffers repeated pummelings, emotional, physical, even spiritual. Before he meets Lena, his efforts to make connections only make trouble. At work, Barry’s escalating aggravation is made visual in background antics: while he’s on the phone, pacing, trying not to yell at one of his seven sisters, calling to remind him the 12th time about a birthday party that night, you see Lance in the distance, slamming a toilet plunger against a counter to demonstrate its unbreakability for prospective clients. On his first date with Lena, her mention of his family feels like an assault. He winces, then excuses himself. In the men’s room, he wreaks havoc, smashing the sink, the towel dispenser, the stall doors.
Pacing, slamming, smashing, banging. The film’s rhythms are all like that. The first thing Barry sees in the morning, before Lena, is a car wreck, loud. As he looks out over the street outside his business, the car comes skidding and then flipping past him, over and over, crashing and crunching and screeching, the sound echoing and compounding Jon Brion’s innovative percussive score. At that moment, another car pulls up, and some faceless someone dumps a harmonium on the street. Whomp. Barry scoops it up, saving it from a rumbling truck, and literally runs it back to his office.
Barry’s compassion (for the harmonium, anyway) makes him seem resilient, and strangely complex. Much has been made of the oddity and perfection of Sandler’s casting in the film; and indeed, in his own films, immature and fart-jokey as their humor can be, he tends to play well-meaning schmucks whose propensity for violence reflects on the world around them as much as it tells you anything about them. Where these films can be tiresome because they are so repetitive, that very quality makes a point, given that his fans are continually contented to see the next version of the same movie (Little Nicky‘s relatively poor box office being an exception that proves the rule).
Both Sandler and Anderson are, it turns out, acutely attuned to the infinite, painful costs of consumer culture. Their films explore the ways that repeated, ever-hopeful efforts to purchase happiness (or escape, affection, status, respect, meaning, etc.) will beat you down. Here, Barry’s efforts are various, but they’re all based on faith: no matter what happens, he keeps on, in angry, misguided, optimistic ignorance. He doesn’t know why, for instance, he’s drawn to buy thousands of Healthy Choice pudding cups to exchange for free airline mileage, except that he’s figured out a flaw in the promotional giveaway (this part of the plot is based on a true story, which Anderson optioned on hearing it: David Phillips earned 1.25 million miles by purchasing 12,150 pudding cups, for $3000). The idea comes to him as if form heaven: wandering the supermarket aisle, he asks, “What am I looking for? Tell me, talk to me.” Whomp: his prayer is answered, and he rushes to the pudding aisle.
His other major effort falls flat In one especially desperate moment, he calls a sex line, and naïvely gives up all his vitals to Latisha (Ashley Clark), who passes the info on to her boyfriend, Dean (Another Anderson regular, Philip Seymour Hoffman), a Utah mattress store owner who sends a squad of four look-alike hooligan brothers, to harass and beat down Barry; they come at him like a horde of berserkers in their SUV, forcing him to give them cash from his ATM.
If this band of brothers is not enough noisy terror, Barry’s own sisters create another kind of cacophony. The phone jangles as he’s trying to attend to a customer; it’s a sister, calling to warn him, “Show up at this party tonight, you fucking phony chatty piece of shit.” At the instant of his arrival at said party, they’re all over him: “Remember when you used to get all mad, when we called you gay boy?” Barry nods, slinks off, trying to hide.
There is no escape. Not because she’s perceptive, his sister Elizabeth (Mary Lynn Rajskub) stands close to him and observes, “You look nervous.” No, he mumbles, as she hustles off to tend to some urgent food item. Barry stands alone, stricken: the camera zooms in, slowly, as he gazes on his sisters and their families, nattering—the sound level rising—as they gather round the dinner table. Cut to his perspective of the natterers, and suddenly, he snaps, bolts to the sliding glass doors, which he kicks to pieces. His sisters watch, shocked and suddenly, briefly, silent.
Frightened by his own increasingly out-of-control temper, Barry approaches his brother-in-law, a dentist: “I don’t like myself sometimes,” he confesses. “What exactly is wrong?” asks the dentist. “I don’t know if anything is wrong because I don’t know how other people are.” Poor Barry, like Travis Bickle, but without the comfort of his mirror.
But if Barry can’t see himself, his concerns, if not his all of his attempted solutions, are more than familiar. Punch-Drunk Love deftly rearranges any number of generic conventions, from romantic comedies, musicals, and melodramas with happy endings that can’t make sense but seem inevitable and necessary. Barry’s own happy ending begins when he follows Lena to Hawaii (that most magical and happy of places, at least in the brochures), with no idea of how she’ll respond: she’s there on a business trip, and he arrives, heart aflutter, without a clue where she is.
Because this is the movie that it is, their first night in bed is incredible, all he might ever have hoped for. Their pillow talk pulses with the fierce rhythms of his life, now, amazingly making sense, now comprehensible and exhilarating: “I’m looking at your face,” he whispers, “and I just wanna smash it, I just wanna smash it with a sledgehammer, you’re so pretty.” She doesn’t miss a beat: “You’re so cute, I want to scoop out your eyeballs.” He sighs, “Oh this is funny,” as intimacy can be. He confesses, “At that restaurant, I beat up the bathroom.” And it’s all right.
Like the genre pictures it simultaneously venerates and deconstructs, Punch-Drunk Love brings its pieces together even as it reveals their dissonance and clatter, and, most especially their never-ending restiveness, their perpetual pains to make things work out. Like these precursors, it’s about fears of rupture, imminent breakdowns, and faith. Inexorable, insistent faith, like a sledgehammer.