Painful Humor and Euphoric Pleasure In ‘Punch-Drunk Love’

Anderson's quirky film is reinvention in the purest sense, free of commercial pressure.

In 1999, California resident David Phillips became a media sensation when he outsmarted Healthy Choice. He noticed a flaw in the company’s frequent flyer mile promotion — the price of pudding — and for $3,140, got himself a whopping 1,253,000 miles. Known from then on by the moniker of “Pudding Man”, he would never again have to pay for a plane ticket.

That same year, director Paul Thomas Anderson unleashed his sprawling epic Magnolia. At three hours and over a dozen characters, it leapfrogged over quirky cases like Phillips to focus on tragic themes of cancer, broken family, and drug addiction. He dubbed it “The all-time great San Fernando Valley movie”. But in the wake of its release, Anderson felt a need to cleanse his dramatic palate; to practice restraint, and pursue a narrative rooted in optimism; maybe even romance. These desires, coupled with his discovery of the “Pudding Man” story, eventually paved the way for 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love. (Strauss, Bob. “Magnolia Springs from Valley Roots”. The Montreal Gazette. 19 December 1999. Print.)

In taking a left turn from Magnolia, Anderson laid down three stipulations: Punch-Drunk Love would be a comedy, it would be 90 minutes in length, and it would star, of all people, Adam Sandler. This news ruffled the feathers of cinephiles everywhere — people just didn’t understand what a visionary filmmaker could possibly want with the guy who played Happy Gilmore. The only person who had an answer, it seemed, was Anderson himself. “He just appealed to me,” Anderson told Roger Ebert, “his films are obviously good because they’re obviously communicating something to a lot of people and they’re making them laugh… I wanna get a piece of that.” (“Love’ At First Sight“. Roger Ebert.com. 13 October 2002. Web. 19 December 2016.)

On the surface, Punch-Drunk Love’s Barry Egan is the prototypical Sandler hero: lovable and immature. From this foundation, Anderson tightened the screws, and sketched a character who was insecure, clumsy, and worst of all, crushingly lonely. It’s no coincidence that the first shot of the film finds Barry by himself in a barren warehouse (where he manufactures novelty plungers). He wears a bright blue suit and lacks basic social skills. Upon meeting future love interest Lena (a delightful Emily Watson), he practically sucks down his coffee mug. He also deals with seven sisters who delight in mocking him and recalling painful childhood memories, the most notable being: “Remember when we used to call you ‘Gay Boy’?!”

An early party scene captures all that is pathetic about Barry’s existence, as the camera backs him into a china cabinet. Here, we’re forced to stare and watch him squirm; the cacophony of small talk and snide remarks build to a fever pitch. When Barry finally snaps and kicks out the windows, we come to see the repressed pain he bottles inside. His family, with shrieks of “You retard, Barry!” fail to share in the realization.

The character is one of the many eccentrics in Anderson’s oeuvre. Like Dirk Diggler (Boogie Nights) or Daniel Plainview (There Will Be Blood), Barry is a man not easily understood by the outside world. Manic bursts of violence mask his inability to voice emotion, just as sex did for Diggler and monetary power for Plainview. Only here, with Sandler’s comedic presence at the helm, the film ventures into moments of deadpan slapstick. People fall off chairs and in front of forklifts. Supposedly shatterproof plungers break on impact. And Barry runs everywhere — hotel hallways, airports, his own warehouse — in a constant state of disarray.

Of course, what makes Punch-Drunk Love such a delight is the balance it strikes between painful humor and euphoric pleasure. Barry’s restaurant date with Lena ends badly — he gets them kicked out by destroying the bathroom — but the single-take shot of them walking to the car at last grants him a warming condolence. She understands his frustration. Later, the pair embark on one of the oddest exchanges in rom-com history, with talk of smashing faces and biting cheeks taking the place of sweet nothings. In the wrong hands, it could’ve been discomforting nonsense. With Anderson, it feels just, and honest. Barry might be damaged beyond repair, but that doesn’t mean he can’t find the love we’re all looking for.

Anderson and cinematographer Robert Elswit embellish this transformation with visual cues. Early scenes come steeped in blue, to signify Barry’s mood, while lens flares and overexposure emulate his sisters and invade the frame. This practice becomes more prominent in the apartment, where he naively gives credit card information to a phone sex operator. The character is shown at his most vulnerable here, crushed by light blues and whites.

As Lena gradually brings love into his life, however, the color red signals his liberation. Her sweater is red, as are those of the women he sees in the Hawaii terminal. Earlier, upon seeing a red-dressed woman in the supermarket, Barry stumbles upon the sale for the Healthy Choice pudding. It’s the most Expressionist tactic Anderson has attempted to date, while the dazzling interstitials of Jeremy Blake serve as cherries on top.

As Barry, Sandler steals our hearts. We cheer when he finally barks back at his sister, when he crowbars the extortion crew from the phone sex company, and when he makes a trek to Utah to confront the owner of said company: mattress salesman Dean Trumbell (a short-fused Philip Seymour Hoffman). There he stands, still clutching his phone receiver, driven by newfound purpose: “I have a love in my life, it makes me stronger than anything you can imagine.” Broken down, these bits could be mistaken for classic Sandler: spastic yelling, freakish strength, sudden confidence. The same ingredients apply to something like The Waterboy (1998). But taken together, here, and given proper calibration, it makes for a career-defining performance.

Throughout his journey, Barry tinkers with, and eventually fixes, a broken harmonium. This is an accurate metaphor for the film itself — damaged, whimsical, and overall rewarding in its intimacy. Anderson never had grand expectations for the film, aside from satisfying his own creative itch, but Punch-Drunk Love is by no means a minor work. It’s reinvention in the purest sense, free of commercial pressure. Like love, or a really great sale on frequent flyer miles, it comes completely out of left field.


The Criterion Collection Blu-ray offers a pristine digital transfer, approved by Paul Thomas Anderson and sharpened to maximum effect. The scenes in Hawaii have never looked nor sounded as good as they do here.

Extras include the short film Blossoms & Blood, a Punch-Drunk Love retelling compressed into 13 minutes with additional artwork from Jeremy Blake. There’s also a handful of deleted scenes, a 2002 panel at the Cannes Film Festival, a discussion between curators Michael Connor and Lia Gangitano, and a clip of the “Pudding Man”, David Phillips, taken from NBC in 2000. The highlight of the bunch, however, is a new interview with the film’s composer, Jon Brion. In it, he discusses the collaborative process with Anderson, as well as the inspiration behind the score’s unique structure.

Criterion takes great care with its selections, and this elegant release of Punch-Drunk Love is no exception.

RATING 8 / 10