Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

This unconventional and intoxicating concoction by P.T. Anderson oozes style, rhythm, and idiosyncrasy.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
2002 | USA | Comedy/Drama/Romance | 95 mins | 2.39:1 | English
NC16 (passed clean) for strong language including a scene of sexual dialogue

Cast:  Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Plot: A beleaguered small-business owner gets a harmonium and embarks on a romantic journey with a mysterious woman.
Awards: Won Best Director (Cannes). Nom. for 1 Golden Globe – Best Actor (Comedy/Musical)
Source: Sony Pictures

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Light
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Normal
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream

Viewed: Criterion Blu-ray
First Published: 20 Aug 2012
Spoilers: No

Punch-Drunk Love stands out as writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s most underrated picture.  It is as much a film of surprising dramatic spontaneity as it is a technical experiment with some kind of rare warmth and glow that permeates from its brilliant visuals.

Anderson, who made his feature debut with Hard Eight (1996), and then later broke out in stupendous fashion with dazzling films like Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999), only matured as a consummate filmmaker with There Will Be Blood (2007), in my opinion the greatest film of the decade.  

Punch-Drunk Love, made between Magnolia and There Will Be Blood, has often been overlooked despite winning Best Director at Cannes.

It is by any standard a small film by an immensely-gifted filmmaker, but with a heart so big that it hints at something truly special, never letting the constraints of the romantic-comedy genre stop it from flourishing as one of the more idiosyncratic pictures of the year.

It stars Adam Sandler, who was once a comedy star, but has now lost his mojo.  All fears that Anderson has miscast Sandler in his film evaporate in the prologue, which will leave one simply speechless.  

Full of sharp dialogue, and a rich, off-kilter score by Jon Brion, Punch-Drunk Love is a rhythmic exploration of one man’s inept grasp of his own character.

Barry Egan (Sandler) is that man.  He is a seemingly bubbly man who operates a small business in an exceedingly striking blue suit, but who periodically exhibits childlike tantrums.

“You can go to places in the world with pudding.  That’s funny.”

He is an introverted guy lost in his own world, unable to feel comfortable in his own skin. Perhaps it is growing up with seven sisters who take turns to bully him, or perhaps his business is stagnating.

Anderson never explains the genesis of Barry’s character issues, but simply waves them along in a flood of visual imagery too good to be true.  Barry finds love in Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), who might just believe in his strange ways.

Sandler’s performance is quite outstanding, giving an effective dramatic performance with some whimsical sprinkles of his comic talent. Anderson also tries to break nearly every rule in the cinematic handbook for filmmakers, especially with his application of cinematography.  

The Oscar-winning director of photography Robert Elswit, who has worked on every Anderson feature (except for his latest The Master (2012)) delivers visuals that are both polished, yet sometimes intentionally drawing attention to distracting lens flares, oversaturation of lighting, and the breaking of the 180-degree rule among others.

Anderson and Elswit aren’t here to show off their skills with the camera, lighting, movement, and sound, but rather treat the variety of techniques used to address character.  

This makes Punch-Drunk Love an expressionistic, albeit unconventional, love story that takes pains to visually and aurally echo Barry’s emotional and psychological states.  The film may be P.T. Anderson-lite, but quite extraordinarily, the essence of cinema never eludes it.

Grade: A




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