Punch-Drunk Love is a bizarre film for a number of reasons. First and foremost, I will just reiterate how much I adore Paul Thomas Anderson. I will never pass up the opportunity to heap enormous amounts of praise on him. His worst film is even better than the best films of other filmmakers. Having said that, Punch-Drunk Love is a film that stands out in his filmography like a sore-thumb. On a purely narrative level, it does not bear a single bit of similarity to his other films – yet, it is still an utterly wonderful film that may not be my personal favourite, but every time I watch it, I feel joyful because it is such a sweet and complex little film.
Punch-Drunk Love is about Barry Egan (Adam Sandler), a lonely single man that runs his own novelty item business. By some chance, he encounters an abandoned harpischord in the street, and a young English lady named Lena Leonard (Emily Watson) that enters into his life on the same day as well. Barry instantly falls in love, but he’s got other problems as well, such as his seven maniacal sisters, his preoccupation for buying pudding to receive the frequent fliers miles and the fact that he is being extorted for money from a sinister group of people. Yet somehow, beneath all of this, Punch-Drunk Love is a love story about two people, and it never strays away from the path of being a beautiful story of love between two human beings.
Let me say something I have never said before – Adam Sandler was great in this movie. Arguably, I am one of Adam Sandler’s biggest detractors. He makes films that range from mediocre to utterly terrible, and most of them are what I believe to be just cash-grabs, where Sandler can make a quick buck for doing nothing, because he knows people will see his films. Yet this review isn’t the place to bash Sandler, because in recent months, I have grown to appreciate Sandler a little bit more. He may choose terrible roles, but he seems like a genuinely good person that just wants to make entertaining movies (we can debate if most of his movies are actually “entertaining”, when “horrifying” may be the word I would use to describe quite a few of them).
However, Sandler has shown great promise as an actor in the past. He was indeed someone who did tremendous work on Saturday Night Live and he’s made some classic comedies such as The Wedding Singer and Happy Gilmore that are wonderful. Yet Punch-Drunk Love showed a new side to Sandler. Now this isn’t Serious Sandler like we get in films like Men, Women and Children or Reign Over Me, where he gives good performances. I would ever argue that Click is a film with a concept much better than its execution. Punch-Drunk Love is a genuinely great performance from Sandler. He plays on his own strengths as an actor that we hardly see – the more quiet, vulnerable and interesting moments that his characters show in many of his films (you know, when he actually shows some promise before launching into the vulgarity and flatulence) are exhibited here. Punch-Drunk Love offers Sandler an incredible opportunity to give a solid leading man performance – funny, interesting and heartbreaking, I honestly never cease to be amazed at how Sandler is able to give a performance like this here and then go on to make Jack and Jill. It just seems bizarre. I never thought I’d spend this much time praising Adam Sandler. But I stand by the claim that we should give every actor a chance, because even the worst actors have a Punch-Drunk Love in them, that’s for sure. To quote Paul Thomas Anderson himself, Punch-Drunk Love is “an arthouse Adam Sandler film”, which it is exactly. It isn’t difficult to see some lesser director butchering this story and making it a crowd-pleasing Adam Sandler film (with Kevin James in there somewhere, as well as Rob Schneider in some racially-insensitive part again). I am so happy it was Paul Thomas Anderson that made this film, because it is quite an incredible film.
What is even stranger to me is the fact that Sandler was paired up with Emily Watson – I never actually thought I’d see the day that someone who has made her career in somewhat higher-brow roles, in prestige films, would be paired with Adam Sandler. Watson absolutely steals this film – she is so transcendent, lovely and adorable here, and we can’t help falling in love with her ourselves. Her quirky innocence only complemented with her natural charm makes for a riveting viewing experience. Watson is just so lovely here, giving an effortless and flawless portrayal of a woman who also just wants what she feels she is entitled to – someone who genuinely loves her. Her character is somehow simultaneously mysterious and uncomplex. We never truly get into her head, but we don’t feel the need to, because she is just so ordinarily lovely, we don’t need to know. There are references to her past that aren’t exactly brushed away, but rather just not explored on purpose, to allow for the nature of her character to be present.
Towards the end of this film, there is a moment where Adam Sandler and Philip Seymour Hoffman are standing about an inch away from each other. It is one of the most surreal images I have ever seen in a film – one one of the most respected actors to ever live, the other one of the most reviled, standing across from each other. Hoffman could have had no more than five minutes screentime in this entire film, but he still is absolutely dazzling and demands respect. Honestly, the pairing of Paul Thomas Anderson and Philip Seymour Hoffman is amongst the all-time great director-actor companionships. Hoffman made five films with Anderson, and each one of those five roles saw Hoffman in very different roles – chronic gambler, microphone operator, nurse, leader of a cult and a mattress salesman, which he plays in Punch-Drunk Love. Hoffman is extraordinary, and I can saw with my apparently unbiased bias that he is a welcome presence in this film. He is, on the surface, the sole connector between this film’s narrative and the director. It is an absolute pity that we will never see another Anderson-Hoffman collaboration, and it brings a tear to my eye to think of what could’ve been.
I mentioned how on a purely narrative level, Punch-Drunk Love bears very little resemblance to anything Anderson has ever done before – but that was only a surface analysis, because as we look deeper, we see the distinctive features of Anderson’s filmmaking, such as the fact that this is an exceptionally well-made film. Everything from the cinematography to the editing, to the music to the overall execution, was striking and brilliant. The meticulous attention to deal and tiny minutiae that Anderson throws in here is so wonderful, and most of all, this is a film about the human condition, and how we form connections with one another.
Talking about forming connections with one another, Punch-Drunk Love is one of the most romantic films I have ever seen, and that is quite a statement, because this often seems like a very unromantic film, considering how the central plotline of the romance between the two main characters is often shoved to the background to make space for one of the sub-plots. What makes this film so special and romantic is how real it is. It doesn’t rely on romantic movie conventions, which are essentially predictability and cliché. This is a film of which you don’t know quite what to expect, and you keep guessing right until the end. It could’ve easily ended in a very sad and dour way, which is life, or it could’ve ended in the sweet joy that was the ultimate ending, which is also life. Punch-Drunk Love is a film without much dependency on clichés, and for any romantic film, to avoid cliché almost altogether is quite an achievement.
I plan on taking a proper and thorough look at Anderson’s entire filmography very soon, where I analyze each of his films. However, I can say now that I am not quite sure where to locate Punch-Drunk Love in Anderson’s filmography. It is not an instant classic, nor does it ever reach the unreachable heights that Anderson frequenly soars to. Yet it is also a marvelous film. Honestly, even if I would locate it within the lower tiers, it isn’t that this is a bad film, or one of Anderson’s worst – it just means that it doesn’t reach the standard Anderson set so unbelievably high. Punch-Drunk Love is a delightful film, and I am so happy it was made, because it allowed Anderson to explore a genre he hadn’t before. Regardless of where it stands, it is still a wonderful film.
Watch Punch-Drunk Love – it has a brilliant performance from Adam Sandler, a lovely performance from the incredible Emily Watson and another scene-stealing turn from Philip Seymour Hoffman. It has a beautiful score and a dazzling visual aesthetic that is simple but utterly beautiful. Most of all, Punch-Drunk Love is a sweet love story for the ages, and an underrated classic of the genre. Check this out if you want something romantic but also unique. A lovely film that everyone will enjoy (and honestly, as long as this film gets people to watch Paul Thomas Anderson movies, I am beyond content). A lovely and unforgettably great film.