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.