Criterion Review: Punch-Drunk Love


On first viewing, 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love stands as an outlier against Paul Thomas Anderson’s other more seriously-minded work, starring, as it does, Adam Sandler as the lead in a quirky romantic comedy. But on closer inspection, Anderson’s trademark themes and character tropes are all present and correct: sparse but explosive moments of violence, an off-kilter romantic sensibility, and a compellingly strange male loner.

The loner is this case is Sandler’s Barry Egan. A toilet plunger salesman with an unhealthy fixation on collecting frequent flyer miles from boxes of chocolate pudding, Barry would be considered unlucky in love were he not so singularly uninterested in romance. That is, of course, until the breathless Lena (Emily Watson) arrives on the scene. An awkward friend of one of Barry’s many sisters, she keeps contriving reasons to appear at Barry’s warehouse until he finally takes the hint and starts dating her. What follows is in many ways a standard romantic comedy structure.
There are impromptu holidays – courtesy of Barry’s frequent flyer miles – awkward doorway farewells and idiosyncratic pillow talk, all ticking rom-com boxes. Or rather, it might be considered standard stuff were it not for the combined mastery of Anderson, composer Jon Brion and cinematographer Robert Elswit, who together create a dizzying, occasionally unsettling audio-visual landscape. Brion’s score, all driving percussion and neurotic harmonies, perfectly characterise Barry’s awkward instability and Elswit’s painterly use of colour is at times staggeringly gorgeous, set against the subtle unease created by Anderson’s screenplay.
Bathed in cold blue, the opening shot is more Stanley Kubrick than Mike Newell, and the film’s stand out sequence, in which Barry is simultaneously bombarded by an irate phone sex worker, his sister’s hen-pecking, a work accident and repeated requests to explain the mountains of chocolate pudding in his office is hilarious in its technically meticulous representation of controlled panic.
The shaggy-dog script is Punch-Drunk Love’s final masterstroke, with a sub-plot concerning the aforementioned phone sex worker and the world’s dodgiest salesman, Dean Trumbell (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) ending in a stand off that earns top marks for successfully combining genuine tension with outright silliness. Perhaps overshadowed by Anderson’s other more ostensibly serious work, Punch-Drunk Love nevertheless represents both a highlight for the director and for its star.

Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell

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