Friday, February 9, 2018

Punch-Drunk Love

PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE                  C+                  
USA  (95 mi)  2002  ‘Scope  d:  Paul Thomas Anderson       Punch-Drunk Love 

This is an uninvolving film that goes haywire from start to finish, perhaps exploring some obsessive, passive-aggressive medical condition that doesn’t exist, more likely treading on thin ice, psychologically, as what this really is is another Adam Sandler movie, filled with little idiosyncrasies that come from his weird comedic persona, though the film was written and directed by Anderson, the shortest film in his repertoire, perhaps resembling the sprawling chaotic mess that emanates from Jerry Lewis movies, but this is on a completely other level altogether, and not in a funny way, or one that ultimately succeeds.  What’s missing here is an ounce of credibility or believability, lost in some kind of imaginary fantasia on urban alienation, yet somehow there are some that think Adam Sandler has somehow transformed himself into a serious actor, including Roger Ebert, Punch-Drunk Love Movie Review (2002) | Roger Ebert, who claims he “reveals unexpected depths as an actor.  Watching this film, you can imagine him in Dennis Hopper roles.”  Incredulously, one couldn’t disagree more, as it seems like the same old guy that first took the nation by storm as a weird character on Saturday Night Live TV (1975 to present).  While there are amusing moments, to be sure, the question is do they make up for all the other uncomfortable moments of wreaking havoc with reality, making this little more than a fairy tale.  Arguably the weakest film by this director, as whatever love may be found at the end does not in any way make up for the inexcusable behavior, violent outbursts, and lame attempt to express depressive behavior, actually making fun of it, where one consequence is that those with serious medical issues may be taken less seriously, as Sandler normalizes his reprehensible outbursts, after all, finding love and happiness in the end.  The same can’t be said for those actually suffering from depression, where baby steps are a barometer of improvement.  This outlandish concept is part of a breezy and whimsical romantic escapade that indulges in senseless violence as part of the repercussions for being human, and then excuses it because the lead character means well, or so it seems, so let’s cut him a break.  At least he’s trying.  If only we were that forgiving for the criminal acts of those suffering from medical issues, but our jails are filled with people who have done far less offensive behavior.  The latest trend is for police officers to actually shoot and kill the mentally ill, representing a quarter of police shootings in 2017 (Police shootings 2017 database - Washington Post) because they don’t follow commands, mistaking them for normal, when they’re not.  This film desensitizes viewers to that reality, instead wrapping up borderline psychotic episodes with musical songs and pretty colored balloons, making it all seem so harmless.         

Adam Sandler is Barry Egan, a goofy guy who is not just a loner, but a loser, emotionally infantile and remote, a guy that dwells on hating himself, frustrated and overwhelmed by his own insecurities, pushed around by his seven bullying sisters who gnaw away at his self-esteem, treating him like a pathetic basket case who just doesn’t fit into the family, always questioning his intent, so he leads a boring, non-descript life, spending a lot of time by himself, though prone to uncontrollable crying episodes, resorting to violent uncontrollable outbursts that erupt when things go wrong, apologizing for the damage afterwards, but his aggression issues are alarming, making him an unsympathetic figure, where viewers may wonder what the hell is wrong with this guy.  Leading a solitary life, wearing the same blue suit throughout the entire movie, never changing his clothes (who metaphorically may as well be called Mr. Blue), he works out of an empty warehouse in the Los Angeles suburbs selling supposedly indestructible plungers, though the one we see him display smashes to smithereens.  He thinks he’s onto something with his latest brainstorm, however, when he discovers coupons for airline mileage have a coding error, allowing him to collect hundreds of thousands of miles for just a few hundred bucks, upping the ante, thinking for a few thousand he could attain over a million miles, seemingly unlimited mileage, though he’s never flown on a plane, stocking up on pudding cups (the cheapest item with the greatest reward) that pile up in a corner of the warehouse, causing attention.  But before we learn anything about him, a mysterious occurrence takes place before his observing eyes, as a car comes careening down the street in front of his warehouse before crashing, turning over several times, where a cab screeches to a halt right in front of him, depositing a harmonium on the street, as if that was the object of the chase, and then accelerates out of sight.  Not that any of that makes any sense, Barry simply returns to his job as if nothing happened, but an attractive English lady (Emily Watson) leaves her car for repairs in the outside alley, leaving him the keys as the neighboring company doesn’t open for another hour and she has to get to work.  Again he thinks nothing of it, like this kind of stuff happens all the time.  What sets this film apart from others is the Gary Rydstrom audio design, mixed with the percussive musical score by Jon Brion, and repeating abstract color designs by Jeremy Blake, as a neverending series of distractions pile up at work, taking on a life of their own, as we hear incessant phone calls interrupting his sales pitch, also the accusatory tone of his sister (Mary Lynn Rajskub) visiting him at work, reduced to snippets of dialogue on repeat, sounding overly condescending, introducing him to the English lady with the car, Lena (presumably the Lady in Red), her coworker who turns out to be some kind of blind date set-up, asking questions, making him feel like he’d like to just disappear altogether, as the warehouse sounds grow into a crescendo of noise drowning out his own life, given a kind of symphonic expression that intensifies until the bubble bursts when a forklift accident occurs just outside his office, and we’re back to reality.  In this way it’s easy to see how Barry’s mind wanders or gets distracted, collecting too much information, losing focus altogether, overcome by unseeable and unknowable forces that leave him emotionally paralyzed, confused and disoriented, evoking the titular mood of being punch-drunk.

What seemingly gets the ball rolling is an odd parallel of two forces, first a telephone sex chat line that Barry, in a moment of loneliness, succumbs to that turns out to be an extortionist scam that feeds on his credit card information, continually asking for more money, eventually sending thugs out to collect their fee if the customer hesitates to pay, which only adds to the already victimized relationship Barry has with a seemingly hostile world.  The other is the boldness of Lena’s continual interest in Barry, making all the first moves, calling him, asking him out, where it takes a while before Barry even realizes what she’s offering, as he’s so used to people having little to no interest in him.  When someone finally takes an interest, he literally goes bonkers, destroying the bathroom fixtures in the restaurant in a cringeworthy moment where he’s apparently punishing himself for not being honest or withholding the truth, rationalizing his behavior before being escorted off the premises by the manager.  Lena, however, is not dissuaded by this seeming embarrassment, but remains attracted to him for whatever reason, choreographing one of the more awkward good night kisses imaginable.  However, she’s leaving for Hawaii the next day on a business trip, with Barry running out buying thousands of dollars worth of pudding in hopes of attaining free airline mileage to join her, only to learn it takes six to eight weeks to redeem the coupons, dazed by the obstacles impeding his path, so in a frantic rush he decides to just head for the airport, arriving in Hawaii, where he has to play the detective and learn where she’s staying, all accentuated by a Shelly Duvall as Olive Oyl song out of Robert Altman’s almost universally unseen POPEYE (1980), Punch-Drunk Love - He needs me - YouTube (3:15), surprising her with a call, and the unimaginable happens, becoming an impressionistic, candy-colored, kaleidoscope journey to paradise.  In typical Barry fashion, staring out at the ocean as they’re having a cocktail, he utters the infamous words, “It really looks like Hawaii here.”  Apparently that was the aphrodisiac she was looking for, retreating to their room, where Barry is finally rewarded for all his efforts, as somehow, someway (despite zero onscreen chemistry between them), things are finally looking up, echoed by their love chatter, where dirty talk has exceedingly violent overtones, but it’s right for them, which is all that matters.  However there’s lingering unfinished business back home with the telephone goon squad, sending attackers out to rough up Barry, led by the boss behind the scenes, no less than Philip Seymour Hoffman as the mastermind, a creepy guy with a mouth as foul as Barry, getting into a phone call that’s nothing but a series of F-bombs from both of them, as if they deserve each other, another kind of distraction that represents a senseless, jumbled up mess, turning into a Western stand-off that literally goes nowhere, becoming an unfunny satiric skit on male pride.  But Barry has to clean up the unfinished business in his life before he can start anew with a clean slate, supposedly happy and in love with an adoring woman who inexplicably has no problems whatsoever with this guy, making this a dream come true, just like in the Hollywood musicals. 


The intrinsic story is modelled after David Phillips, David Phillips (entrepreneur) - Wikipedia, aka the Pudding Guy, the University of California at Davis engineer who discovered a loophole in a Healthy Choice/American Airlines promotion, bought $3,000 worth of pudding and actually exchanged it for 1,253,000 frequent-flier miles.


  1. First, let me say how much I enjoyed this line from our previous exchange: "I'd guess our eclectic tastes met dead center with this one." Beautifully put. Your opinion on Punch-Drunk Love came as no surprise to me and, indeed, it is the most common view of the cinema-going public. As always, your argumentation was carefully thought through, and I really can't and have no desire to protest it. Instead, I'll offer but scattered notes from "the other side of the fence".

    For I do love this movie dearly, and so do many of my friends. (There MIGHT be something to the dead-pan humour that speaks to us as Finns, but that deserves a mention in the footnotes at best.) From the director's point of view, it's obvious that Anderson wished to do something different after two epics massive in scale and number of characters. PDL is a sort of surreal callback to his first movie, Hard Eight (I dislike its alternative title, "Sydney") in terms of more intimate character studies and smaller, tighter scale. It's worth noting, also, that this is the film where Anderson took more risks than in any other movie he's done. He challenged his audience by decidedly not making Magnolia 2, and by casting a mainstream buffoon in the lead. (He resembles Robert Altman in this retrospect also.) Regardless of whether Anderson failed or succeeded, he shows commendable character. One constant, however, is his craft. From the visual and sound design point of view, PDL is first-rate stuff, in my opinion masterful, and certainly head and shoulders above its contemporary American efforts.


  2. ---

    So it is - mainly - the story and characters that cause pause in so many viewers. As far as I can see, there's not much that can be done about that. I suppose it would be ludicrous to state that this film was made for outsiders and those who just don't fit, but in any case, I relate to Barry Egan in a major way, and that's what makes all the difference. I also don't know how to explain that to anyone. The following should not be considered as an attempt to do so.

    As unlikely as I imagine you may find this, to me Barry's whole psyche feels absolutely credible and recognizable, albeit in a dramatized, exaggerated way. Barry is a confused child of modern times, in his case suffocated by his overbearing sisters, but too meek to ever stand up to himself. I could even see him as a grown-up Charlie Brown. Anderson's take on the character is whimsical, but this is the point of Barry, and this frustration, if anything, is what Adam Sandler can manifest better than almost anyone. He did it again, perhaps even better, in Reign Over Me. Sandler's career offers very few pleasures, but for these two performances I'm willing to forgive him a lot.

    It might be too bold to suggest that Barry is, in part, Anderson's alter ego, but then again, if ever there was a film maker in American cinema who devoted himself to his characters, it's PTA. Here, he catches the sense and feeling of isolation and emotional detachment in remarkable detail. The spatial aspect of the visuals alone tell of a lone-wolf-against-his-will. And the incredible scene in the hotel room when Barry makes the desperate, "dirty" phone call constantly moving in and out of the focus point. Then there is the brilliant idea of Barry collecting the flier-miles. I understand that this real-life news was the main inspiration for Anderson to write PDL. His genius was to use this "loophole idea" as a way of accentuating all the Barryes of the world; that it would take such a loser, an observer standing outside of it all to notice this "flaw in the system" - and. of course, then not quite knowing what to do with it.

    Until the girl arrives. This is pure romanticism, but as I see it, she is essentially the missing piece in Barry's life that puts everything else in place. It could have been something else, too, but this is a romantic film, and in any case, it is the human connection that's missing most in Barry's life.

    Whether one buys the romance or not is up to viewer. However, my only true criticism of your analyzis is the claim that the two actors lack chemistry. I suppose that this, too, is a matter of taste, but I'm still personally puzzled by the notion. For me, the breathtaking chemistry between Sandler and Watson (absolutely brilliant) is the key. If you can feel it, the rest of the movie makes sense; it also makes the confrontation between Barry and the gangsters understandable. He is finally ready to stand up.

    PDL is a lovely film, impeccably put together, its pleasures including a brilliant soundtrack, and remarkably well acted. To me, its point is the revisionist take on classic love stories. This is not a love story in 3 parts. This is a prelude to a love story, and Anderson slyly closes the curtains where love stories normally only fade in.

  3. Nicely stated. Epic comments, to say the least.

    I’m wondering if age is a telling factor, as viewers younger than I tend to champion this film, while those older are more hesitant, finding it hard to embrace and difficult to believe. Not sure what that implies, but there might be factors in growing up in different generations. The same might be said in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, which I like but am not enthralled by, as others are, or Greta Gerwig’s recent Lady Bird, where my feeling is much the same, like maybe you had to grow up in the period setting for the musical choices to be so personally on point.

    If it means anything, my feelings were similar for Reign Over Me, which I found saddled by stereotypes and predictability.

    I tend to enjoy disparate points of view, like we have here, where it’s almost like we’re seeing two different films. The beauty, of course, is that you see what you see, so what “others” bring only add or enrich your viewpoints, so long as it doesn’t antagonize and infuriate you. In much the same way, I enjoy writing about films, but actually prefer the comments and insights of others, which tends to be way more interesting than anything I might have to say. Especially considering everything that’s written about cinema, from way back when until now, where it seems like each new generation has to come to terms with the same seminal works, bringing with them a new perspective.

    Maybe the reason the film’s romanticism doesn’t work so well with some (and lack of chemistry) is that we barely get to know Emily Watson’s character, or why she has this interest, which boggles the mind when his weirdness doesn’t freak her out, but only seems to make her want him even more. Her heightened degree of interest is like the polar opposite of how Barry views himself, where his self-loathing and personal negativity seems to inspire her to even greater heights, which at least for me, feels like wish fulfillment, like it’s all a dream. Can’t say this kind of thing has ever happened in my experience, but maybe that’s not the point. Maybe he’s not speaking to the universal experiences of others, but something closer to home by the author and director, where weirdness in sunny Southern California is an everyday occurrence. And like the recent Finnish film Miami, maybe one of the reasons Finns might be attracted to this sardonic humor is that Southern California is the polar opposite of frigid Finland, where you have to get used to bundling up to go outside. There is a zaniness to this film, to be sure, and if caught on the same brainwave, maybe it’s even electrifying for some.

    The confrontation with the gangsters felt very comic book oriented to begin with, hardly real at all, at least for me, so his ability to overcome by finally having a life that matters making them insignificant is hardly overcoming anything. As they were insignificant all along, headed by none other than the Master. But that’s a whole other element that we’ll save for another day.

    Great stuff, though Anton. You’ve obviously got internalized tissue connecting you to this director, which is amazing to have.

  4. Yes...I only realized half-way through - or even further - the length of my comments. In hindsight, it might have been wise to take up on your generous offer previously, but I really just spontaneously started pouring out my thoughts. Oh, well. I do agree with most everything you've written in your reply, though. It might well be an age thing, and PTA was quite young when he made the film. Obviously the film maker and I are caught on the same brainwave making me his ideal audience.

    It could also be an "actor thing", although I'm quite unsure here. I don't want to get hyperbolic, but I do love actors. Emily Watson's character poses no problem with me because I have basically been in love with Watson since Breaking the Waves. I know this is terribly flimsy, but since it is Emily Watson, I don't need much explanation for everything is in her eyes. She is able to convey with her being how she "gets" Barry. I suspend my disbelief, gladly.

    Reign Over Me is a weaker film, but very well acted, and I for one believe that often the story is not in the plot but in the characters. For what it's worth.

  5. Have you seen Appropriate Adults? There is a review onsite,, but the film is much better than these thoughts suggest, with Watson mesmerizing throughout.

  6. Thanks for the tip, I will check it out. She's a one of a kind talent.