Mark Reviews Movies


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Cast: Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Luis Guzmán, Mary Lynn Rajskub

MPAA Rating:  (for strong language including a scene of sexual dialogue)

Running Time: 1:29

Release Date: 10/11/02 (limited); 11/1/02 (wide)

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Review by Mark Dujsik

Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the more inspired filmmakers working today, taking giant steps beyond expectation and maneuvering his way through highly personal and universal topics. Even though his work on Boogie Nights and Magnolia recalls the films of the likes of Altman and Scorsese, it is so utterly unique and daring and sincerely realized that it demands attention, and Anderson deserves every bit of the praise lavished upon him just as much as every accusation of pretentiousness leveled against him. And this is why Punch-Drunk Love, Anderson’s ninety-minute ode to desperate, needy love, is such a disappointment—a resoundingly unique, daring, and sincere one, but a disappointment nonetheless. Because of or despite its relatively short running time, Punch-Drunk Love is a case of a writer/director either not having enough time to develop certain aspects of his film or finding himself low on creative resources and filling in the blanks with anything. Or perhaps everything is in order, and I simply didn’t “get it.”  I admire the film on many levels, particularly one: the performance of its leading man (of all people), Adam Sandler.

Barry Egan’s (Sandler) life is like a car crash—violent, destructive, out of control. His childhood was spent in a house with seven sisters. He’s quite antisocial, although his sisters are adamant in trying to hook him up with friends of theirs and trying to get him to go out once in a while. He represses his feelings and is prone to violent outbursts, like the time he threw a hammer through a sliding glass door when his sisters called him “gay boy” one too many times. He’s ashamed of the way he is. What he needs is some stability. Enter Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), who, like the harmonium in the opening scene, comes out of nowhere but with a purpose and at the right time, is imperfect (perhaps broken in some ways), and attracts Barry’s curiosity. She asks Barry to watch her car until the auto shop next door to the warehouse he works at opens. He obliges, spends his day at work, and shows up at his sister’s birthday party where he has yet another violent outburst. That night, he calls a phone sex line, looking to just talk to someone, but the operator keeps pestering him for money. So while his life spins more out of control, Lena is revealed to be one of his sister’s friends, and she asks him out to dinner.

What follows is a quirky romance, full of awkward moments where each participant is afraid of saying too much and growing to the point where pillow talk revolves around the desire to hurt the other person. In these moments, Anderson has crafted a genuinely sweet and affecting romance. Anderson, however, does not seem content with this level of simplicity. Instead, he throws about many rather complicated, contrived moments of pretense. A surprising amount of the movie is spent in aimless wandering as Anderson is either trying to add something profound to the proceedings and missing or simply filling out the run time. The opening metaphor is a perfect example. It takes him at least five minutes to establish it and in the end only foreshadows and reiterates exactly what we discover as the film progresses. Random blue light shines on characters for a brief second, emphasized with a music cue, and we wonder why. The subplot with the phone sex scam ring gives Barry a target and reason for his aggression, but what other significance do they play except to have something different in the story?

Anderson’s strength lies in his ability to create and flesh out fascinating characters, and Barry Egan is no exception. He’s worth following and sympathizing with. Anderson delves into him with tiny details—the sisters, the way he slowly backs out of a room. Sandler is the right man for this part. His performance is a composite of the elements that have worked in his previous work: an element of depression, downheartedness, loneliness, isolation, fits of rage. It all stems from the mind of a man who has lived his life like a child because of the way he’s grown up. Sandler eliminates the posturing of performing or attempts to be funny, qualities that have plagued his previous performances. There’s something raw on display. Sandler is brave for exposing it, and Anderson is brave for giving him the chance to do so. The rest of the casting works as well, although none of the characters have Barry’s depth. Emily Watson is also just right as the timid Lena, and Philip Seymour Hoffman is great in a small but important part of the phone sex scam ringleader, a scummy guy with an unexpected (and unnecessary) moral agenda.

I enjoyed Punch-Drunk Love for what it is: straightforward and sincere. The problem is that Anderson doesn’t seem to trust something so simple. His flashes of pretense are daring as per usual, but I didn’t get anything from them this time. I’m recommending the film simply because when it works, it really works. I really just wanted less from it and a lot less of Anderson thinking he’s giving us more than what is actually there.

Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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