Paul Thomas Anderson’s PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE (2002)

Notable Festivals: Cannes (Best Directo), Toronto, London

By 2002, director Paul Thomas Anderson had gained a reputation for long, sprawling features with multiple points of view. He had arguably reached his personal apex with this style in 1999’s MAGNOLIA, and began feeling a desire to subvert his critics and move away from the types of films that had made his name. During interviews, Anderson began to vocally express his wish to make a short romantic comedy with Adam Sandler—a wish that was laughed off by most critics who knew of his mischievous nature. So imagine their surprise when he actually follows through on his promise with 2002’s PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE, an off-the-rails romantic comedy inspired by the real-life story of a California man who exploited a loophole in a Healthy Choice/frequent-flyer promotion for personal gain. On paper, a rabidly quirky Adam Sandler vehicle directed by an arthouse auteur would read as a surefire failure, but Anderson’s fourth feature finds him feeding off the energy of a particularly experimental phase, making for the shortest, most idiosyncratic (but also the most charming) film of his career.

PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE follows Sandler’s Barry Egan, a neurotic entrepreneur of novelty hotel plungers and a man prone to volatile emotional outbursts and crippling anxiety. Despite being surrounded by seven overbearing and suffocating sisters, Barry is a profoundly lonely man who takes a simple pleasure in running a modestly successful business. One night, a misplaced yearning for human connection leads Barry to dial up a phone sex line, inadvertently exposing himself to a ruthless extortion scheme that thrives off the guilt of so-called “perverts” like himself. As he battles with fraud, he’s introduced to the calm yin to his powderkeg yang: a pretty Englishwoman named Lena (Emily Watson). She’s socially awkward like he is, and their off-kilter chemistry brings out an adventurous side to each other that they never knew they had. On top of all this, Barry has also stumbled upon a loophole in a frequent-flyer promotion run by Healthy Choice that nets him an insane amount of airline miles at the cost of several pudding packs. Emboldened by his newfound love towards Lena and flailing rage at his fraudulent tormentors, Barry sets about collecting as many pudding packs as he can to rack up miles and take control of his life.

Sandler, one of the most polarizing figures in Hollywood, is rightfully vilified for his dumb, juvenile slapstick comedies. To the complete surprise of the stuffy film elite, Sandler’s performance in PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE turned out to be one of 2002’s best—his conveyance of a dark, complicated soul is routinely hailed as his finest hour. Watson’s casting is equally inspired, her gentle eccentricities becoming the perfect foil to Sandler’s tenuous grasp on his temper. The reliable stock company of actors that Anderson had cultivated in his previous three features is largely absent from PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE, save for the late, brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman as the cocky sex-line extortionist and Luis Guzman as Barry’s loyal, if somewhat dimwitted, business partner.

Much like the title suggests, PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE is a strange brew of discordant influences and tones, taking conventional rom-com tropes and filtering them through Anderson’s unique worldview. Cinematographer Robert Elswit returns to lend some visual consistency to an otherwise-radically different project for the director. The pair continues their use of the anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio, as well as dynamic Steadicam camerawork and bold, deliberate compositions. Anderson also builds upon his core aesthetic with several expressionistic visual abstractions, like unmotivated lens flares, harsh highlights, silhouettes, and animated watercolor-painting interludes courtesy of video artist Jeremy Blake.

Production Designer William Arnold also returns, creating a bright, yet drab, every-world for the characters to inhabit. Arnold utilizes a red, white, and blue color palette to convey Anderson’s curious vision. A film’s color palette should be an active participant in telling the story, and Arnold’s work accomplishes it with a minimum of fuss. The white, colorless walls of Barry’s apartment and warehouse suggest a bland, directionless existence, so when Barry shows up in a bright blue/indigo suit, the act is indicative of Barry opening himself up to the potential of excitement and change. Watson’s Lena appears primarily in a bright red dress, nicely complementing Barry’s own wardrobe with the color of passion—a passion that will fully consume Barry and give him the necessary courage to overcome his obstacles.

Anderson’s musical choices also mark a direct shift away from his past work while still maintaining a degree of continuity. He retains the services of composer Jon Brion, who utilizes the distinctive sound of the harmonium to create a discordant electronic sound that bubbles furiously and echoes Barry’s severe internal stress. Indeed, watching PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE can be a very stressful watching experience, mainly due to Brion’s jittery, unrelenting score. Instead of the wall-to-wall jukebox approach that Anderson employed in his previous films, Anderson employs a much more disciplined approach to his needledrops. He limits them to just one: Harry Nillson’s “He Needs Me”, a rather strange little ballad that captures Anderson’s darkly whimsical tone and becomes the de facto theme song to the piece. PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE is the end of an era for Anderson, with the film being his last collaboration with Brion (as of this writing). In Anderson’s subsequent hiatus from filmmaking during mid-2000’s, Brion became one of the unfortunate casualties of the director’s artistic reinvention. I don’t imagine that this could be attributed to bad blood between the two, but rather an amicable parting of ways as the result of Anderson’s evolution of style requiring a sound far different than what Brion could deliver.

Despite creating such a radical stylistic experiment for himself, Anderson can’t help but incorporate his major thematic fascinations into PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE’s story. The film is fundamentally a love story, and love stories are fundamentally about the search for a mate—- with the creation of a family being the larger implication. Barry’s search for a mate, personified in Lena, is a way for him to escape his own family of seven emasculating sisters and become the head of a new one. PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE’s love story also serves as a convenient conduit for Anderson to explore ideas toward sexuality by way of Barry’s varied responses to his newfound feelings. He confuses sex for love, initially trying to alleviate his loneliness in the companionship of a phone-sex line girl. Their conversation is hollow and transactional despite being laced with aggressively sexual dirty talk. Contrast that withBarry’s wooing of Lena, a dynamic that is almost child-like in its innocence while simultaneously providing a profound, intimate connection and a foundation for love to flourish. Anderson’s love of California iconography and culture is also present, albeit in a subdued form that accurately conveys the colorless palette of the San Fernando Valley’s suburban/industrial outskirts.

A distinct step away from the kind of films people loved him for, PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE was a bold gamble for Anderson—a gamble that ultimately paid off when critics hailed Sandler’s performance as one of the best of the year and awarding Anderson himself with the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival. While not his best-known film, PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE has attained a cult following that’s kept it within cinema’s collective consciousness. It may be minor in terms of impact and scale, but PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE is a major shift towards a new phase of Anderson’s career and in-depth character studies that continue to this day.

PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE is currently available as a high definition stream via Netflix.

Produced by: Paul Thomas Anderson, Daniel Lupi, JoAnne Sellar
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Director of Photography: Robert Elswit
Production Designer: William Arnold
Edited by: Leslie Jones
Music by: Jon Brion