After helming a pair of lengthy, ambitious ensemble dramas—the beloved Boogie Nights (1997) and the more divisive Magnolia (1999)—Paul Thomas Anderson, already a seasoned director in his early 30s, reclaimed the long-neglected romantic comedy for filmgoers who actually value things like invention, audacity and risk—traits common to the genre in its 1940s heyday—with Punch-Drunk Love (2002). The gamble paid-off among critics and cinephiles at least, winning Anderson Best Director at Cannes and winning Adam Sandler the grudging admiration of viewers who couldn’t stand most of his other movies. (A similar trick was pulled off with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind , an even more inventive, more resonant film about love and its unnerving proximity to mental illness, in which Jim Carrey gave a rare emotionally textured performance—which is to say he wasn’t totally unbearable for anyone over the age of eight.) Sadly, the film failed to recoup its hefty $25-million dollar budget, but then Anderson’s models seem more aligned to silent comedies, certain MGM musicals or A Perfect Couple (1979), Robert Altman’s woefully underrated stab at the genre, than to contemporary box office-behemoth schmaltz like, say, You’ve Got Mail (1998).
Sandler’s Barry Egan has seven emasculating sisters, a small business wholesaling novelty toilet supplies, and one painfully blue, not very flattering suit, which he wears through the entirety of Punch-Drunk Love and which must smell really, really bad by the end, given that Barry travels from California to Hawaii and Utah and generally gets nervous and runs around a lot. Barry also obsesses over special retail offers, suffers devastating levels of depression and/or anxiety, exhibits violent tendencies and is socially awkward in the extreme—in several regards, Barry’s not so different from Freddie Quell, the protagonist of Anderson’s far more somber The Master (2012). If Anderson’s highly focused, minimally cut, deliberately jarring direction didn’t encourage us to laugh or marvel at Barry’s unbridled distress, we’d be really worried about the guy. But Punch-Drunk Love is true to the rom-com’s promise of unlikely redemption, sending Barry an angel in the form of Emily Watson, an attractive, patient, quietly peculiar woman who not only fancies Barry but seems to fancy him precisely because he’s a fucking maniac—there’s a memorable scene that finds the lovers exchanging whispered sweet nothings that describe grotesque violence, a scene that may have inspired a similar motif in Take This Waltz (2011). Given the nature of her more recent work, it’s great to see Watson in a role that allows her to be sexy and mysterious. Unfortunately, I think the film’s one significant flaw may be her character’s lack of development. I get that Anderson wanted to make Punch-Drunk Love as fleet as possible, and to keep Barry firmly at the centre, but I believe that Barry’s pathos would have been only strengthened by a deeper sense of what sort of woman could so easily fall in love with him.
Anyway, Punch-Drunk Love is a very special, and very, very funny, genuinely nutty film. It also features a wonderful supporting turn from one of my favourite contemporary character actors, Luis Guzmán. Now it only somebody would make him the lead in a romantic comedy!