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2002’s Punch-Drunk Love has the distinction of being the movie that gave Adam Sandler his first and only dramatic role which was regarded as one of his best movies. It has now been re-released onto Blu-ray as part of the Criterion Collection.
Barry Egan (Sandler) is a lonely single man with seven sisters and the owner of a novelty toilet plunger company. He has mental health problems, saying he is constantly sad and cries uncontrollably at random moments. Barry ends up meeting a ray of light in the form of one his sister’s co-workers, Lena (Emily Watson) and embarks on a romance with the English lady.
Punch-Drunk Love was a highly praised movie upon its initial release – writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson won the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival and Sandler and Watson won acting awards at the Gijón and Toronto Film Festivals respectively. It also had the knock-on effect from film critics that maybe Sandler could give another performance of that quality whenever one of his comedies were released.
Sandler shows he has a range beyond his stable of comedy and his struggles as Barry feel all too real. Despite being around family and co-workers, Barry is really a lonely figure where no one seems to understand his mental distress. He is constantly calling out for help when he is speaking to random people on the phone. People who have suffered these issues can easily relate because the struggle is to deal with these conditions: sufferers withdraw from the world and don’t know how to seek support.
Although Sandler’s performance was serious, Punch-Drunk Love comes across more as a quirky rom-com with a surreal edge. At times this quirky style works to the detriment of the movie. It opens with Barry witnessing a car crash, followed by some men leaving a broken harmonium on the street which Barry tries to fix throughout the movie. This makes Anderson look like he is trying to be quirky for the sake of it, like he wanted to make a movie in the style of Wes Anderson, Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman. The advantage of this surreal style is it leaves the movie open to interpretation – as the movie progresses it becomes more like a dream. It is questionable if events are really happening or are they just a fantasy in Barry’s head – seeing it as he wants.
Despite the movie only being 90 minutes long, the central story about Barry and Lena is a thin one and Paul Thomas Anderson had to use some subplots to extend it. The biggest one is when Barry calls a sex line in a desperate attempt to reach out for some companionship, but ends up being blackmailed by the people running the line. A group of blond brothers are sent to extort Barry and this part of the movie is more like a Coen Brothers caper akin to Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski. Yet it ends with Adam Sandler and Philip Seymour Hoffman shouting ‘fuck you’ at each other.
The weaker subplot was one the involving Barry buying Healthy Choice products and giving away air miles if people buy in bulk. Barry figured out a way to buy the right products that allow him to get the air miles below cost. This was based on a real story, but it came across as an attempt by the movie to show its indie cred as Barry seeks a desire to break free from his mundane life.
Punch-Drunk Love was a meticulously crafted movie, Paul Thomas Anderson was deserving of his Cannes Film Festival award. There was beautiful framing throughout the movie, even in plain apartment complex corridors with fire exit signs over the doorways. A number of scenes were shot in long takes adding to a sense of chaos in Barry’s life. The big moment was when one of Barry’s sisters tries to introduce him to Lena and everything goes wrong: there are accidents, calls blackmailing him and his sister asking about his well-being after a disastrous family party.
Punch-Drunk Love was a part of a trend of surreal indie movies in the late ’90s-to-early-noughies – surreal romances focusing on psychologically damaged people and it is amongst the best. It is deserving of its reputation for being Sandler’s best performance in a movie and Anderson was able to compensate the thin story with his fantastic photography and energetic direction.
Special Features: The Blu-ray comes with a short film, Blossoms & Blood starring Adam Sandler and Emily Watson but this was an insubstantial work. There were also interviews and press conferences, deleted scenes, a commercial from within the movie and twelve scopitones (twelve tracks of music).