Barry (Adam Sandler) plays his harmonium in Punch-Drunk Love.
After films like Magnolia, Boogie Nights, and There Will Be Blood, P.T. Anderson understandably has earned a reputation as a big, epic filmmaker. Ironically, his most impressive direction might come in his smallest film, both in scope and perhaps stature—Punch-Drunk Love.
Anderson's 2002 "romantic comedy" is just bursting with energy, literally, to the point where it explodes in a kaleidescope of color and sound on several occasions. It's such a unique vision and so unequivocably P.T. Anderson that I can't believe I haven't seen it sooner. Adam Sandler does career-best work (not very difficult, I admit, but I did think he was quite good in Funny People). Emily Watson is infectously pleasant. And Phillip Seymour Hoffman is on-hand in one of my favorite cameos ever. The film is just a masterpiece, plain and simple.
Barry Egan (Sandler) is a lovably pathetic individual. He works as a bathroom supplies salesman. He wears the same blue suit everyday. His idea of a good time is buying Healthy Choice pudding cups in order to maximize his frequent flyer miles. And just the thought of spending an evening with his emotionally abusive sisters is enough to make him break out in a fit of tears and anger.
One day, Barry is introduced to Lena Leonard (Watson), one of his sister's coworkers who's intrigued by Barry and finds his vulnerability sweet. Barry, of course, is smitten almost immediately by a woman who will give him the time of day. But his budding relationship is put in jeopardy by a phone-sex operator who tries to extort him.
This is the kind of story that could only be told by Anderson. Between the pudding, the phone-sex scammers, and the harmonium Barry finds discarded on the sidewalk, Punch-Drunk Love has more subplots than it should. But they're all interesting because they're so unusual. Yet, with these characters at the forefront of the action, not one of them seems put-on or inorganic.
What's especially interesting is that, in just 90 minutes, Anderson manages to develop a romance, a character study, and a thriller of sorts. I'm not sure how many other films you could say that about, which automatically earns Punch-Drunk Love a lot of respect in my book. But it's in executing them all so well and melding them all together so seemlessly that we get to see why Anderson's talent is on a whole other level than his contemporaries.
I couldn't really say the same about Adam Sandler, though I do think he's quite good in this film. It's odd because I really don't think this role is much of a stretch for him, yet he continues doing nonsense like Jack and Jill and You Don't Mess with the Zohan. After seeing Punch-Drunk Love, I realize he has no excuse but money to continue making films like those, and assuming the dude has enough, it makes me dislike him as a film personality even more. But no more bad things because he knocks this one out of the park.
Emily Watson is Sandler's equal in every way. If I had one gripe about the film, it's that I thought her character was a little underdeveloped, but credit Watson for making Lena feel a lot deeper and more complex than she's written. The film's other memorable turn is courtesy of the great Phillip Seymour Hoffman. It's a very small part, but he had me in stitches.
Is Punch-Drunk Love the thematic equivalent of Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, or Boogie Nights? No, probably not. But that shouldn't take anything away from this film or what those involved have accomplished. It's so much fun to watch and just another example of Anderson's mastery of the medium that is film.