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With: Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, Luis Guzman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Robert Smigel
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
MPAA Rating: R for strong language including a scene of sexual dialogue
Running Time: 89
Date: 05/19/2002

Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

4 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Punch-Drunk Love begins with our main character, Barry Egen, cordoned off into the far left corner of the Cinemascope frame, trapped behind a desk and smothering in a deep-blue, almost chrome-like, suit.

We know immediately that writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson is in complete control of this situation. He's an up-and-coming master filmmaker with enough gumption to tell an unusual story, and to jump from the sprawling, infuriating, epic and brilliant three-hour Magnolia to an 89-minute Adam Sandler comedy.

But don't expect Sandler to go around doing his usual thing. As illustrated by that opening shot, Anderson has him on a tight leash. He explodes only within the confines of the film, and only in accordance with certain rules.

As a result, his Barry comes across as rather sweet and lost, an anti-hero that most of us can actually identify with instead of laugh at. "I'm a nice man!" he screams at one character late in the film, and we believe him.

Barry works in an anonymous San Fernando Valley warehouse selling novelty plungers. When we meet him, it's very early in the morning, and he clutches an insulated steel coffee mug and wanders out to the street where the early dawn glows over the ugly buildings. A car crashes, flips over and slides down the street, and a cab stops and an unseen someone sets a harmonium (a little piano) on the street.

A little later, a beautiful Englishwoman comes by Barry's office hoping to drop off her car to get it fixed. It's an innocuous meeting, but it later leads to true love. In fact, we later learn that the woman, named Lena (Emily Watson), specifically came by to meet him. (She works with one of Barry's seven domineering sisters.)

Though Barry's life isn't really that complicated, he has a lot going on. One lonely night, he dials a phone-sex service and the following morning, the girl calls him back to ask for money. Now he's the victim of an interstate shakedown. On top of that, he thinks he's figured out a scam using Healthy Choice pudding and frequent flyer miles (a true story).

The funniest thing about Barry is that none of these things is very easily explained. On his first date with Lena, he finds it's better not to say anything. Not to mention that he has an uncontrollable temper, brought on by years of abuse from his older sisters. During the date, he smashes up the bathroom out of frustration and fear that he's screwing everything up.

If you howled when Sandler hauled off and whacked Bob Barker in Happy Gilmore, you might not like it when Sandler's uncontrollable violence and temper are channeled into something healthier and ultimately more appealing here.

The movie takes a wondrous turn when Lena jets off to Hawaii for a business trip and Barry decides to follow her. In a normal Hollywood romantic comedy, this would lead to an inevitable disaster, but Anderson instead provides us with some of the sweetest, most heartbreakingly wonderful moments in any movie this year.

Throughout most of this sequence, draped like a ratty, comfy bathrobe over a rumpled bed, Anderson weaves a song called "He Needs Me," which was recorded by Shelley Duvall for Robert Altman's 1980 Popeye movie, of which I am a lonely admirer. You can choose to remember that Anderson has already been compared with Altman on more than one occasion, or you can sit back and enjoy the disarming sweetness of it all.

I also loved that Anderson did not feel the need to tack on a third corner, stretching his movie into the standard, boring old love triangle. Punch-Drunk Love has the nerve to show us two slightly odd, lonely, and entirely open-hearted people who only have trouble realizing that someone else finally understands and connects with them.

I should mention that Anderson regulars Luis Guzman and Philip Seymour Hoffman (both in Boogie Nights and Magnolia) turn in superb supporting performances, as well as the fascinating Mary Lynn Rajskub (also in Sweet Home Alabama, speaking of stupid love triangles), who plays Barry's most prominent sister.

Ultimately, I suppose I'm overpraising Punch-Drunk Love, which certainly lacks the scope and grandeur of Magnolia or Boogie Nights and the edge of Hard Eight, Anderson's virtually unknown debut film. But I admired that Anderson had the nerve to dial it down for one movie. And in the end, it just flat-out made my day.

Note: this review has been upgraded from 3.5 to 4 stars.

One of the year's best DVDs, Punch-Drunk Love (2002, Columbia/TriStar, $28.96) is now available in a deluxe, 2-disc set. I've seen it three times now and it keeps getting better. Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson constructs his best, most personal film yet, and at the same time, discovers the innermost soul of Adam Sandler, who gives a beautiful, deeply touching performance unfairly overlooked at the Oscars. Columbia has mastered this gorgeous, widescreen color film in their Superbit format, which uses more disc space for the picture and sound and less for the extras. The second disc contains trailers, outtakes, "scopitones" and Anderson's short film Blossoms & Blood. Anderson has also included a feature that allows viewers to play all the extras together in a random order.

In 2016, the Criterion Collection gave this a Blu-ray release, underlining once again just how beautiful it is (noticing all those rainbows this time), but also how loud it can be. (It raises nervous tension more effectively than most other films.) It's a restored, high-definition transfer, supervised by Anderson. The release includes most of the same extras from the deluxe DVD, as well as a new interview with composer Jon Brion, a new piece featuring behind-the-scenes footage of a recording session for the film's soundtrack, and a new conversation between curators Michael Connor and Lia Gangitano about the art of Jeremy Blake, used in the film. Miranda July provides a liner notes essay.

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