Chaos lurks in every corner of this giddily off-kilter foray into romantic comedy by Paul Thomas Anderson. Struggling to cope with his erratic temper, novelty toilet plunger salesman Barry Egan (Adam Sandler, demonstrating remarkable versatility in his first dramatic role) spends his days collecting frequent-flyer-mile coupons and dodging the insults of his seven sisters. The promise of a new life emerges when Barry inadvertently attracts the affections of a mysterious woman named Lena (Emily Watson), but their budding relationship is threatened when he falls prey to the swindling operator of a phone sex line and her deranged boss (played with maniacal brio by Philip Seymour Hoffman). Fueled by the careening momentum of a baroque-futurist score by Jon Brion, the Cannes-award-winning Punch-Drunk Love channels the spirit of classic Hollywood musicals and the whimsy of Jacques Tati into an idiosyncratic ode to the delirium of new romance.
“I don't know if there is anything wrong because I don't know how other people are.”
Nervously standing in front of a curio cabinet full of old china, Barry is listening to his seven sisters berate him from the other room. He clenches his jaw tightly. The sisters continue to undermine him from without lowering their voices. They gather around the dinner table while the insults continue with names and cruel memories from his childhood. Barry appears and violently kicks out three large glass windows. He stands silently afterward waiting for the insults and embarrassment to continue while shards of glass fall behind him.
‘Punch-Drunk Love’ isn’t your typical Adam Sandler film, nor is it your typical Paul Thomas Anderson film either. The above scene could’ve been lifted from any of Sandler’s comedies. Add a forgotten classic rock tune behind the growing frustration and cap off the violence with witty zinger (maybe a fart noise for good measure) and the film moves on to the next goofy scene with Sandler reaching into his comedy bag for recycled bits to cap another scene of violent childish outbursts. A noted Sandler fan, Anderson took to heart those childish characters Sandler rolled out and found something within them that needed expressing. Deep within ‘Billy Madison’ or ‘Happy Gilmore’ were genuine feelings of anger and confusion that never rose to surface because of their heavy emotional weight being crushed under the need for humor. In ‘Punch-Drunk Love’ Sandler’s character Barry Egan is the personification of those deeply rooted feelings.
Barry is an introverted salesman with social anxiety who sells novelty toiletries. While suffering through the incessant phone calls from his seven sisters Barry attempts to run his business and make sense of the chaos around him. After meeting the angelic Lena (Emily Watson) Barry struggles to keep his emotional outbursts from affecting his growing love for her. After a dinner date that ended with a bloody hand he says to Lena, “At that restaurant I beat up the bathroom.” A lonely anxiety-ridden man, Barry’s efforts to make actual human contact often fail miserably. He calls a phone sex line hoping to find love but ends up scammed by a shady businessman played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. We are often presented with a disconnect Barry doesn’t understand. He wants love and success by isn’t sure how people get those things. When phone sex girl Georgia pours on the dirty questions Barry replies with “That doesn’t matter” as if calling a sex line means just small talk. Amassing cases of pudding for an airline miles promotion one would think Barry wants to travel. No, he just wants to take advantage of a flaw in the promotion which grants him millions of miles for very little money spent. Those subplots in ‘Punch-Drunk Love’ not only show Barry’s conflicted persona but also feed into the leaps the he must make over the walls of depression and anxiety built up around an ever chaotic existence. When a harmonium is dumped on his doorstep Barry develops an attachment to the discarded instrument that helps him navigate those walls of anxiety and confusion.
Sandler is a brilliant choice, because he constantly plays childish buffoons forced to face reality. Whether it's adopting a kid (Big Daddy), taking on the family business (Billy Madison), or loving his family (Click) the painful emotions within those bratty characters rise to the surface as Barry Egan’s punch-drunk rage minus the sophomoric schtick. He is dynamite in this role bearing some intense acting chops. His comedic flexibility to work within awkwardness and weird setups make him the perfect candidate for Barry’s mindtrip. Comedians always make the best dramatic actors never vice versa. Emily Watson brings a flighty yet grounded take on Lena’s role in Barry’s life. She seems normal, but behind those eyes lie something askew. Appearing out of nowhere she instantly feels a connection without a moment’s hesitation. Philip Seymour Hoffman in a limited role damn near steals the show just by shouting SHUT UP into a telephone over and over again.
Film composer Jon Brion describes the film’s concept by saying it “feels like a musical but nobody ever breaks into song”. According to Brion the supermarket pudding pick up scene best exemplifies this approach to the film. With camera tracking, Barry runs down the brightly lit aisle hoisting up a pudding display grinning ear to ear. We cut to his employee Lance (Anderson regular Luis Guzmán) filling shopping carts with even more pudding. Barry gleefully skips then spins around into a shuffling dance. It’s here that the two men would naturally break into the film’s soaring overture, right? MGM musicals of the 50’s were a feast of color and song filled with quick moves and broad gestures of transcendental pleasure. Anderson’s film has the spirit of those films but with one rule: Nothing is concrete. ‘Punch-Drunk Love’ is about the noise, confusion, and the modern anxieties that plague us in our pursuit of love. Moments of discord gel into romantic swells with scenes bleeding into one another. Lighting changes meld from warm cinematic to scorching the lens. Utilizing digital art from Jeremy Blake we’re given colorful impressionistic art that reflects the film’s emotional ambiguity during key transitions. For both Blake and Anderson color plays a pivotal role in the film’s narrative development. Whether it’s the erratic off-kilter scoring from Jon Brion or the intense visual palette the film constantly resolves from chaotic dissonance into harmonic (dis)order.
There is an exciting sense of possibility with ‘Punch-Drunk Love’ that keeps you glued to the screen. To me the film is an assault on expectation with every moment feeling out of tune. It’s a beautifully intense experience that depicts the awkward collisions of life and love. With Brion’s erratic percussive scoring stomping across the film like a hungry toddler and Anderson’s mashing of color, light, and character the film resembles a visual bebop jazz album. And like any jazz album “Punch-Drunk Love’ may be hard to digest but there is so much to appreciate below the surface.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The Criterion Collection brings ‘Punch-Drunk Love’ to Blu-ray on a BD50 disc housed in a transparent keep case containing a booklet with an essay from Miranda July.
Presented in 1080p with an aspect ratio of 2.39:1 ‘Punch-Drunk Love’ looks astounding in HD! Colors are deeper and richer than previous versions of the film. The deep blue of Barry’s suit and the bright red of Lena’s dress anchor every frame they occupy with pronounced authority. Close-ups on the pudding packages and Barry’s hair are clear examples of the fine detail present in the transfer. Blacks are deep and consistent throughout the feature. Noise and dirt have been scrubbed from the image leaving a pristine transfer. Instances of image softening and over cranked colors are all part of Anderson’s nuanced artistic flourishes which are now fully realized thanks to this HD presentation. Given the film’s psychedelic visual language of color, texture, and transition it can be difficult to tell when the visual inconsistencies are on purpose rather than Anderson playing around.
‘Punch Drunk Love’ is provided with 5.1 Dolby Digital and 5.1 DTS-HD MA audio tracks. Brion’s eclectic scoring envelopes the room throughout the feature. Bass drops in the mix are deep and full without bottoming out. Dialogue is crisp and clear.
Theatrical Trailer (HD) (2:27)
Jeremy Blake’s Love (HD) (1:24)
Eat Tomorrow (HD) (0:33)
Deleted Scenes (HD)
- The Sisters Call (7:18)
- “Are you from California?” (2:23)
Mattress Man Commercial (HD) (0:52) - A funny fake commercial starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as con man Dean Trumbell attempting to promote his “Mattress Man” business.
Blossoms and Blood (HD) (11:58) A short film from Anderson starring Sandler and Watson made from alternate takes and deleted scenes from the film.
Scopitones (HD) (6:20) A collection of 12 scopitones mixed with footage from ‘Punch-Drunk Love’.
Jon Brion (HD) (27:19) Musician and composer Jon Brion is interviewed about his role in creating not only the musical elements for the film but also influencing the film’s style and narrative through the scoring process in close collaboration with Anderson. This interview was filmed for The Criterion Collection in 2016. Tacked on to this interview is ten minutes of footage from a 2001 orchestral recording session for the film. Those interested in the music from “Punch-Drunk Love” will love this featurette.
Jeremy Blake (HD) (20:25) New York gallerist Lia Gangitano and curator Michael Connor talk at length about Blake’s digital art and it’s contribution to the film’s visual style. Filmed for The Criterion Collection in 2016.
Additional Artwork by Blake (HD) (2:42) More original pieces Blake created for the film.
Cannes Film Festival (HD)
- Studio Interviews (7:02)
- Press Conference (37:43)
The Pudding Guy (HD) (5:04) Archival interview from 2000 with David Phillips who took advantage of a Healthy Choice airline promotion to acquire a million airlines miles for only $3000 worth of pudding.
'Punch-Drunk Love' is a love story experiment inside a dreamscape. For Anderson this was a passion project that provided a resting breath for an already dense filmography front loaded with heavy ensembles and even heavier themes. I’m not implying that this film is lightweight by any stretch of the imagination! Even mustering the dissection of a pivotal scene leaves so much unexamined. Casting Adam Sandler may have hurt the film initially, but with this gorgeous Criterion Collection release the film may get the attention it so rightly deserves. With an improved A/V experience and new special features this Criterion Collection Blu-ray of ‘Punch-Drunk Love’ is worth the upgrade and definitely worth rediscovering. Highly recommended.