Most right-thinking film-goers of course eschew anything with the name “Adam Sandler” attached to it, which is why his turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s fourth film comes as such a surprise: not only can he avoid being annoying, but he is able to turn in a mature, complex performance full of pathos and depth.
Punch-Drunk Love centres on Barry Egan, owner of an apparently unsuccessful company which sells niche items such as ‘fungers’ – a sort of a novelty plunger, but with an indestructible handle. Barry seems to drift rather aimlessly through life, and appears to suffer a constant deluge of abuse from his seven rather overbearing sisters. We get brief glimpses into his lonely life; one night he calls a phone sex line, but seemingly not for sexual gratification, but for some sort of contact with another person, however anonymous. Even this seems to backfire on him though, and soon he is being extorted for money by the phone-line operator.
Things look up for him, however, with the arrival of Lena Leonard, a co-worker of one of his sisters’, who express a romantic interest in him. In rather mainstream Hollywood style, she appears to embody an escape for him from his dreary existence, some form of redemption for him; however, despite the rather conventional boy-meets-girl narrative, there is something more at play here. The film has a feeling of unease about it that I haven’t experienced since first watching Todd Solondz’s Happiness (1998), a black comedy which never allows the viewer any sort of comfort zone or respite from its multiple challenging storylines. Watching Punch-Drunk Love, I frequently found myself instinctively laughing at events which would have been funny in a conventional film, but then questioning whether I should have been laughing at all.
This is the balance that Anderson’s film strikes so seemingly effortlessly: we can see that Sandler’s character is like the archetypal pathetic fall-guy, and this is clearly the view his sisters have of him. But his constant cries for help and occasional bursts of rage make us realise the depths of his despair, and we can see that beneath this rather comical exterior lies a troubled but essentially decent human being. For me, another of the film’s touchstones was Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, another film about how the way we conduct our modern lives isolates and alienates us from each other. Like the aesthetic of that film, there is something a little cartoon-like about Barry’s blue suit, and his social awkwardness is reminscent of Seymour, the Steve Buscemi character in that film. The incredible percussive score, composed by Anderson-regular Jon Brion, also seems to add a fantastical quality to the film.
In the film’s third act, we see the effect that finding Lena has had on Barry, and we see what he can be capable of, if he has a focus and belief in himself. He may be still the same Barry Egan, and he may not have changed the world, but he triumphs in a much more profound way. Punch-Drunk Love is a tough watch, and is clearly not a film for everyone. But I found it genuinely touching, a film that reminds us, in the face of despair, of the redemptive power of love.