I saw Punch-Drunk Love once, about 10 years ago. At that time, to me, Paul Thomas Anderson was the dude who’d made the pretty amazing Boogy Nights and the perplexingly revered, and monumentally pretentious Magnolia. Punch-Drunk Love was most famous at the time as the Adam Sandler performance that even film snobs could get behind. I watched it, couldn’t figure out what all the fuss was about and moved on.
In the years since, Anderson made the epic masterpiece There Will be Blood, the hauntingly tragic The Master, and bafflingly brilliant stoner noir, Inherent Vice. Three movies that I would put right up there as the very best made in the last seven or eight years. And three movies that have made Paul Thomas Anderson movies right up there as my most anticipated every time there’s a new one on the way. Three movies that mean I felt more than just a little obliged to give Punch-Drunk Love another shot. Have I been wrong all these years?
Barry Egan (Sandler) doesn’t live the most fulfilling life. He runs a warehouse that sells novelty plungers and other toilet related items, he’s hen pecked by his seven overbearing sisters, and the only thing approaching a passion in his life is exploiting a coupon loophole that earns him millions of frequent flyer miles by buying pudding. Lonely and depressed one night, he calls a phone sex line and has a fairly innocent, non-sexual conversation. Despite that innocence, the phone sex worker calls the next day in an attempt to extort money from Barry, or she’ll expose him as the phone sex loving pervert he is.
Meanwhile, the latest of many attempts by his sisters to set him up starts to bare fruit through Lena (Emily Watson). Seemingly charmed by his quirks, Lena is determined to break through Barry’s defences. But when Barry is juggling his sisters, physical attacks from the phone sex worker’s goons and his own anger issues, pursuing a girl isn’t really that high on his list of priorities. Until, Barry sees acceptance, and some of his own quirks, in Lena.
I’ll say this first, this re-watch of Punk-Drink Love didn’t all of a sudden make me do a 180 and see it as some kind of masterpiece. But, I did like it a whole lot more this time ‘round. And what I liked has little to do with Anderson’s screenplay, and all to do with Anderson’s direction. The way he ramps up the tension and pressure surrounding Barry Egan is amazing. The moving camera, the tightening of shots, the pace of dialogue. Everything closes in around Barry, and Anderson makes sure the viewer feels that too. He does it so well, when Barry does explode into one of his regular fits of physical rage, it feels totally justified. Scary, but justified.
What remained the same for me after this fresh viewing, was my ambivalence to the praise for Adam Sandler’s performance. I really have no idea what all the fuss is about. That’s not to say he isn’t good. I’d go so far as to say Adam Sandler is pretty great, and maybe the only person who could have played this role. What I don’t understand is why people think his work here is some anomaly. To me, it’s Sandler doing the standard Sandler thing that we’ve seen in so many of his movies. The quiet mumbling, the erratic fits of rage. He’s the same as always, it’s the material he’s working with that makes all the difference.
While I didn’t all of a sudden love Punch-Drunk Love, I did like it enough that now I think I also need to revisit Magnolia. It’s epic length and epic pretension is a little more intimidating than the 90 minutes of the quirkily little love story that is Punk-Drunk Love. But at this stage, Magnolia is the only movie in the Anderson canon that I think I don’t like. So I can risk one more viewing if it means being able to upgrade his filmography to a 100% strike rate.