Lest the below post of ten modern romantic movies I especially loathe cause readers to think I’m a grouch, a cinematic curmudgeon who sits in a retirement home muttering things like, “The Barkleys of Broadway, now that was a motion picture. They don’t make ‘em like they used to,” I’ve decided to discuss one of my favorite current romances, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love. (And, to clarify, I really do like The Barkleys of Broadway).
But, to Punch-Drunk Love -- I was baffled by the picture’s lukewarm to mixed reception upon release (in 2002), and wonder why it remains misunderstood to this day. I know that even many Anderson lovers scratched their heads over the movie’s lack of epic heft, extra multiple storylines and large scale speeches. And then there was that Adam Sandler bias -- the knee jerk and unfair question of, why? Why, Happy Gilmore? (And to clarify, I also like Happy Gilmore).
And I don’t just like Punch-Drunk Love, I love Punch-Drunk Love (or as Woody Allen would say “lerve”), an extraordinary unique picture that manages to simultaneously subvert and showcase the Sandler persona beautifully, while maintaining Anderson’s singular éclat as a filmmaker. Anderson’s masterpiece, There Will Be Blood has proven the director can handle multiple genres, but he had proven his versatility earlier with Punch-Drunk. No long Anderson monologues, no interweaving subplots, no drugs, Punch-Drunk Love was a film we'd not only never seen Anderson create, it was (and still is) a movie we’d never seen anywhere. And no matter how you feel about Sandler, he leaves a lasting impression as lonely, alienated Barry Egan, the Californian businessman and put-upon brother who falls for the ever-patient Emily Watson.
To explain the off-kilter, dissonant power of Punch-Drunk Love (aided by Jon Brion’s compelling, lovely, yet anxiety ridden score) is nearly impossible: So alien yet incredibly human is the movie, it frequently puts the viewer right into the uncomfortable, anxious mind of Barry -- an unsettling, but to many, familiar place to be. We have no idea what will happen next (but with delight, and sometimes heartbreak). Sandler, who had displayed talent before this, has never been so fantastically abstract, utilizing his scared-yet-angry-but-violent-little-boy persona with a sublime darkness. This may sound ridiculous to some but Anderson's influence on Sandler is somewhat akin to Alfred Hitchcock's use of Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo (who had certainly played darker characters before Vertigo) -- pulling the dusky and misunderstood out of a popular American movie star and layering him with wounded depth.
Sandler’s verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown, yet deeply romantic Barry is so powerfully beguiling that when Anderson films his journey to Hawaii, it's a moment that's so overwhelmingly romantic, so remarkably special, it both swoons with gorgeousness and rattles your nerves -- all those deep seated raw emotions bubbling to the surface. Tuned to Shelley Duvall singing Harry Nilsson's enchanting and offbeat "He Needs Me" from Robert Altman's great, underrated Popeye (so perfect), Barry moves from work to airport to cab to phone booth, where he finally takes a stand against his sister (“You’re killing me!”), and then reaches Lena. In a beautiful touch, when she answers, the payphone lights up to her voice. A musical sequence that plays like Anderson’s twisted version of the Arthur Freed unit (Barry’s Technicolor blue suit alone) it’s a masterful ode to vulnerability, fear and power, and something that seems impossible to replicate -- stamped with all that live wire, off the cliff Anderson energy and influence.
This might be why some respond so strongly to the picture, or just cannot wrap their heart or mind around the thing. There are those who don't understand a woman loving her man so much that she wants to "chew" his eyeballs, and there are those who do. Love can make you do and say crazy things -- and can become so overwhelming that when it enters the realms of violent thought – positive or negative – it isn’t so strange. Anderson clearly digs this dynamic so, if letting your guard down leads to deception, (spoiler alert) you might kill that imposter in a rage a la There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview, who dumps his faux brother into a shallow grave and shovels dirt over his dead body (a scene I completely comprehend). And if finally sleeping with your beloved makes you realize the strength of your love so much, you can easily confess: “I'm lookin' at your face and I just wanna smash it. I just wanna fuckin' smash it with a sledgehammer and squeeze it. You're so pretty.” Well, that’s just bloody fuckin' brilliant beautiful.