Every filmmaker has what I call a “puberty stage” where they either they blossom to the title of greatness or wither and die off into mediocrity (like that one guy who did that movie about the kid who saw dead people).
Fortunately for us, PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE serves as a departure for Paul Thomas Anderson, who started off in the Altman, Scorsese, Demme terrain of melodrama (Sydney, Boogie Nights, Magnolia) and graduated into a sort of Kubrick-Welles lovechild (There Will Be Blood, The Master, Inherent Vice). At 46, he’s probably our most daring and innovative writer/director currently working. You’d think he’d be French with his resume but oddly enough, he’s American.
Even more so, he’s from “The Valley.”
PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE is that departure. It’s smack dab in the middle of an impressive career but also a film that showcases the surprising talent of Adam Sandler in a rare dramatic turn. I wish Sandler would have went the serious route more because he’s actually pretty damn good at it.
His man-child persona — infamously showcased in Happy Gilmore, Billy Madison — is channeled perfectly into this film’s protagonist, Barry Egan, a shy, lonely, and passive-aggressive (to say the least) bathroom plug salesman. His idiosyncrasies run either to extremely violent — breaking windows, destroying a public bathroom — to extremely timid — he’s jumpy and afraid of social situations. Barry reminds me of one of those people you meet who are so unsure of themselves that basic interaction with others on a daily basis is a terrifying experience.
The films begins with Barry finding a harmonium, meeting a woman (Emily Watson), and eventually hatching a plan to travel around the world using large quantities of chocolate pudding that can be redeemed for frequent-flier miles. The antagonists in his way include a phone-sex operator, four blond brothers, and the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is comically menacing as a mattress salesman by day, small-town Utah gangster by night (reason alone to watch this). Still interested? Hopefully yes. If not, chances are this probably isn’t your movie.
Anderson said his biggest influence was Jacques Tati (the French writer/director/actor extraordinaire) and it shows. Tati was a full-frame director, meaning he meticulously choreographed the action in the foreground and the background. Tati’s blocking was so perfectly in sync with the camera that he rarely got more than a few shots of coverage since everything was covered in the master.
I recently saw PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE again on the big screen (in 35mm) and was amazed at the level of details and layers on display for such a small-scale production. It’s probably the closest musical Anderson will ever make considering there is so much action going on in the frame; even the extras in the background are all doing something organic to the story. Like I had mentioned in my CHINATOWN review, great filmmakers understand the importance of every aspect of the film medium — cinematography, editing, sound, blocking, writing, set/costume, etc. — this movie is a masterclass in showcasing the harmony when all of these attributes come together. The cinematography is a standout.
There are so many wonderful visual touches such as the opening car accident (a camera is attached to the interior of the car), the scene when Barry has phone-sex and camera follows him around the apartment, when Barry gets chased by the four blond brothers, when Barry closes the door a camera stuck to the front window, etc. — I could go on and on. With this film, Elswit and Anderson created a new film accent in the visual execution of scenes.
Cubie King wrote an insightful piece on the symbols and use of color in PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE. I highly recommend checking it out if you want to see PTA’s fastidious use of mise en scène.
After 2.5 gargantuan melodramas, Anderson wanted to make something light and he’s succeeded with a film that’s both funny and romantic (that is, if you buy into everything I said earlier). This is precisely what I love most about this movie.
At 1 hour and 30 minutes long, it’s a “slice of life” film with a melody.
- PTA hired the sound people from PIXAR, so get that 5.1 stereo installed because the sound design here is incredible.
- Like I said, it’s an “art” film, but in a good way. There’s beautiful digital art that starts and bookends the film contributed by the late artist Jeremy Blake.
- Jon Brion’s score is playful, romantic, and Fellini-esque. Especially during the scenes when Barry takes Lena on their first date and kisses her.
- I love the bravura sequences like when Barry visits Lena in a impromptu trip to Hawaii (featuring Shelley Duvall’s rendition of “He Needs Me”) and in a heated argument with Barry, the mattress man exclaims, “Shut” 10 times!
- Also, check out the alien theory on this film. I read an earlier draft of the script where a scene involves Barry gets abducted by aliens and wakes up in Lakers gear.
- Furthermore, notice the shots of space on the TVs, the sound design, and the way the rooms are lit (confirmed by Anderson regular DP, Robert Elswit that PTA wanted to light certain scenes like a spaceship). Interesting.
- Lastly, J.J. Abrams: why did you steal those lens flares from this film?
This is part of an ongoing series where I will be doing movie reviews from my original ESSENTIALS Film List.