Published on March 19th, 2002 | by Padraic Coffey0
Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
Following two back-to-back masterpieces, Boogie Nights and Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson found himself presented with an unusually daunting task, not least for a filmmaker fresh out of his twenties. Perhaps aware that he could never equal, let alone surpass, the sprawling ambition of Magnolia, Anderson decided to move in an entirely different direction, confounding any expectations critics may have held, and producing his oddest, most deliberately esoteric work to date. Gone were the epic two-and-a-half-plus-hour running lengths; Punch-Drunk Love lasted a brisk 95 minutes. Gone, too, was the weaving of interconnected storylines and characters; Punch-Drunk Love focuses entirely on hapless, socially inept Barry Egan, a self-employed plunger salesman, prone to outbursts of particularly destructive rage. And, in a move that baffled more than any other, he cast in the central role the highest paid comedy actor in the world, Adam Sandler.
While Anderson had proven he could contort audiences’ expectations of an actor in intriguing, unprecedented ways with Burt Reynolds and Tom Cruise, Sandler seemed too unlikely a star to blend in with the style established in previous Anderson films. Many were fraught with trepidation; Roger Ebert, who had strongly praised Andersons first three films, found Sandler’s movies so lacklustre he once rhetorically asked, “Do I have something visceral against Adam Sandler? I hope not.” Yet Anderson’s risk paid off, artistically at least. Sandler delivered a performance far better than any that had come before, and though not quite the departure that, say, Jim Carrey had made in Peter Weir’s The Truman Show, his newfound dramatic chops suggested serious potential, which subsequent career choices sadly squandered.
On paper, Punch-Drunk Love sounds like a traditional Sandler movie; he plays a dependent, emotionally crippled man-child, whose explosions of anger could come straight out of Happy Gilmore. Another common thread throughout the comedian’s oeuvre, a lack of luck with the opposite sex, is present in Barry’s awkward encounters with Lena (Emily Watson), friend to one of Barry’s seven sisters. Critics, stunned to see Sandler working with a filmmaker of Anderson’s pedigree, were perhaps a tad quick to assess the strength of Sandler’s performance. The affectations which he displayed in the likes of The Waterboy were still visible, but toned down and channelled into humour of a much darker vein. Indeed, Sandler’s truly best dramatic performance lay ahead, playing an inordinately selfish twist on himself in Judd Apatow’s Funny People.
Punch-Drunk Love is still very much a comedy, deriving humour from subtle dialogue cadences to lowbrow sight gags of the walking-into-a-door variety. Anderson reins in the kinetic style displayed in Boogie Nights and Magnolia, though his love of tracking shots is still evident, and scooped a Best Director award at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival. Punch-Drunk Love marked a turning point in Anderson’s career, away from the overwhelming scale of previous films, to quieter, more calmly paced works. One could certainly not accuse Anderson of remaking the same movie over and over, a charge often levelled at his namesake, Wes Anderson. Nonetheless, the apex of Anderson’s creative output thus far remains in the earlier portion of his career.