Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

Cynthia Fuchs

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.

Punch-Drunk Love

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, Luis Guzmán, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mary Lynn Rajskub
Distributor: limited
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Columbia
First date: 2002
US Release Date: 2002-10-11 (Limited release)

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.






A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.


The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.


Jaye Jayle's 'Prisyn' Is a Dark Ride Into Electric Night

Jaye Jayle salvage the best materials from Iggy Pop and David Bowie's Berlin-era on Prisyn to construct a powerful and impressive engine all their own.


Kathleen Edwards Finds 'Total Freedom'

Kathleen Edwards is back making music after a five-year break, and it was worth the wait. The songs on Total Freedom are lyrically delightful and melodically charming.


HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' Is Heady, Poetic, and Mangled

Laying the everyday experience of Black life in 1950s America against Cthulhuian nightmares, Misha Green and Jordan Peele's Lovecraft Country suggests intriguing parallels that are often lost in its narrative dead-ends.


Jaga Jazzist's 'Pyramid' Is an Earthy, Complex, Jazz-Fusion Throwback

On their first album in five years, Norway's Jaga Jazzist create a smooth but intricate pastiche of styles with Pyramid.


Finding the Light: An Interview with Kathy Sledge

With a timeless voice that's made her the "Queen of Club Quarantine", Grammy-nominated vocalist Kathy Sledge opens up her "Family Room" and delivers new grooves with Horse Meat Disco.


'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.


'Avengers: Endgame' Culminates 2010's Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame features all the expected trappings of a superhero blockbuster alongside surprisingly rich character resolutions to become the most crowd-pleasing finalés to a long-running pop culture series ever made.


Max Richter's 'VOICES' Is an Awe-Inspiring and Heartfelt Soundscape

Choral singing, piano, synths, and an "upside-down" orchestra complement crowd-sourced voices from across the globe on Max Richter's VOICES. It rewards deep listening, and acts as a global rebuke against bigotry, extremism and authoritarianism.


DYLYN Dares to "Find Myself" by Facing Fears and Life's Dark Forces (premiere + interview)

Shifting gears from aspiring electropop princess to rock 'n' rule dream queen, Toronto's DYLYN is re-examining her life while searching for truth with a new song and a very scary-good music video.


JOBS Make Bizarre and Exhilarating Noise with 'endless birthdays'

Brooklyn experimental quartet JOBS don't have a conventional musical bone in their body, resulting in a thrilling, typically off-kilter new album, endless birthdays.


​Nnamdï' Creates a Lively Home for Himself in His Mind on 'BRAT'

Nnamdï's BRAT is a labyrinth detailing the insular journey of a young, eclectic DIY artist who takes on the weighty responsibility of reaching a point where he can do what he loves for a living.


Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few Play It Cool​

Austin's Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few perform sophisticatedly unsophisticated jazz/Americana that's perfect for these times


Eleanor Underhill Takes Us to the 'Land of the Living' (album stream)

Eleanor Underhill's Land of the Living is a diverse album drawing on folk, pop, R&B, and Americana. It's an emotionally powerful collection that inspires repeated listens.


How Hawkwind's First Voyage Helped Spearhead Space Rock 50 Years Ago

Hawkwind's 1970 debut opened the door to rock's collective sonic possibilities, something that connected them tenuously to punk, dance, metal, and noise.


Graphic Novel 'Cuisine Chinoise' Is a Feast for the Eyes and the Mind

Lush art and dark, cryptic fables permeate Zao Dao's stunning graphic novel, Cuisine Chinoise.


Alanis Morissette's 'Such Pretty Forks in the Road' Is a Quest for Validation

Alanis Morissette's Such Pretty Forks in the Road is an exposition of dolorous truths, revelatory in its unmasking of imperfection.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.