As part of our Ultimate Playbill project, each week a faculty member will take the time to extol the virtues of one of the beloved films on this list. This week, I tackle GWC’s #4 pick, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love (2002).
Paul Thomas Anderson is my favorite living and active filmmaker so I was overjoyed to see two of his films make the Ultimate Playbill. His themes of broken people trying to find a place through a makeshift, damaged family always speak to me. It also made my day that Punch Drunk Love, one of his lesser talked about films made the cut.
By 2002, PTA was one of the hottest new voices in film. With Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999) under his belt, the film world was at his feet. And as the strongest new director to come out of Hollywood in a very long time, Anderson really could have done whatever he wanted. Instead he chose to make a film that many people at the time considered a misstep: an Adam Sandler movie.
By this point, Adam Sandler had already become culturally stagnant. Sandler’s high point of the 90’s had come to an end. People knew exactly what to expect from Sandler and it wasn’t much at all. This didn’t seem to bug Sandler as he seemed pretty happy making the same movie over and over again. His production company Happy Madison was already producing truly terrible things like Master of Disguise (2002) and The Animal (2001). It became known that if Adam Sandler’s name was attached to a project, avoiding it might be for the best.
None of this deterred PTA. For years Anderson talked about how he wanted to make a movie with Adam Sandler because he simply made the director laugh. Anderson saw something he could really use in Sandler’s brand of mumble speech followed by yelling. Working with Sandler would definitely be a challenge but one Anderson really wanted to try after making his previous film Magnolia.
Magnolia, a sprawling epic and ensemble piece about accepting death, while featuring memorable set pieces and stirring performances, suffers for its over-long running time–about three hours. Even PTA himself admits the film was too long, citing the loss of his own father as a major factor. For his next project, Anderson made it a personal challenge to make a more hopeful film, one that would clock in at a more reasonable 90 minutes. In addition to length and tone, Anderson decided to make a romantic comedy, as he felt the genre had become as standardized as the action movie.
To revive and update the genre, PTA drew from his love of Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical comedies. These films have the screwball touch to them that the spirit of a lot of jokes and uncomfortable moments in Punch Drunk Love came from. The key parts of the screwball comedy are the battle between the sexes (usually the two leads) and the idea of putting people down only for them to rise back up with a more witty comeback.
Anderson decided to put these tropes into the modern world where people don’t just recover from insults. It deeply hurts and isolates the characters. They take this verbal abuse and just bottle it up. Instead of an unleashing of these emotions through a dance number or song, violence and anger explode onto the screen.
That leads us right into the heart of the story. Adam Sandler plays Barry Egan, owner of a small business selling joke bathroom accessories out of a small rented warehouse. He’s a lonely man driven to edge of his mental limits by his seven sisters.
A sort of inverse Snow White, Barry doesn’t get support from his sisters like the dwarves but instead is subject to their constant putdowns. They question his every move and think of him as the unstable loser of the family. Since this has been drilled into his head, he acts the part and doesn’t know what else to do. He’ll take them calling him “gay boy” until he ruins a party by smashing sliding glass doors and lets the cycle repeat itself.
This is where the casting of Adam Sandler rings so perfect. PTA uses the trademark Sandler as not a source of comedy but something tragic. The incoherent low mumbling is used as a coping mechanism while the outbursts of angry are genuinely scary. All of these “Sandlerisms” are so earned and actually fill Barry with such a sense of pathos.
In one of the film’s most telling moments, Barry pulls aside one of his sisters’ husband who happens to be a doctor (a dentist). Barry explains how he doesn’t like himself sometimes and how he doesn’t know what’s wrong with him or if anything is at all. He is so disconnected from humanity he doesn’t see how other people feel.
The colors and cinematography by Anderson’s regular DP Robert Elswit really hammer home this sense of isolation. The opening shot of Barry at work has him blending into the blue wall in the vast, almost empty room. He almost seems to be a part of the set rather than a human being.
All of these blue colors really make the difference when Barry meets Lena (Emily Watson). Lena while very soft spoken wears a bright red dress that just seems to click with Barry’s blue suit. Lena doesn’t really get any back story but the hushed sadness of Lena is evident from the gentle way Watson portrays her. The movie only works if Watson is just as good as Sandler and she crushes the role. With that, Barry and Lena strike up a relationship and their chemistry really does attach you to the film.
Instead of long shots of the two dancing like the Astaire/Rogers movies, we get long shots of the two of them just interacting. The audience gets to see how they move and watch each other and it’s immediately effective as a tool to make the audience care about their relationship. Their budding romance is the brightest and most interesting thing on the screen, both through performance and film aesthetics.
Part of the reason for their natural chemistry is that besides three other actors, everyone else in the film is a non-actor. Anderson and casting director Cassandra Kulukundis used this to emphasize the connection Barry and Lena have to great effect. Other people’s interactions with the leads seem stiff so the viewer automatically wants to see more of their relationship develop and weather the storm.
While the goofy problems that plagued the leads’ relationship progress in screwball comedies always seemed to be light and fun, Punch Drunk Love does the opposite. The problems in this movie are designed to be terrifying and realistic. The score by Jon Brion is designed to feel more like a horror film sound design than anything else. The tempos are all over the place and sometimes little 5 seconds samples of drums come in to put a real fear for these characters in you.
I’ve often said this film has the perfect cinematic representation of a panic attack I’ve ever seen and most of that is because of the pacing of the score. The scene where Lena and Barry’s sister Elizabeth (Mary Lynn Rajskub) visit him at work while he is simultaneously trying to stave off a blackmailer, keep order in the work place, deal with his sister’s complaints, and impress Lena makes my guts get all twisted up inside.
Anderson and Elswit shot in a lot of single takes that occupy large portions of the screen, all while panning and slowly zooming the camera to create a sense of anxiety. Throw in Brion’s score on top of it all, and you feel like you are losing your grasp on reality like Barry.
All the build up to Barry’s anxieties make it all the sweeter when he finally stands up for himself in defense of Lena. You need these two people to get together and when they do it just feels perfect. The characters are so broken on their own in this terrifying world that them being together is one of the few things that makes sense.
This is the only romantic comedy to make our Ultimate Playbill and I am so happy it did. In my mind, it remains one of the best of the aughts and of all time. It’s one of the most accurate portrayals of mental illness, anxiety, and loneliness of the modern world that I have ever seen. Paul Thomas Anderson completed his challenge to himself and made something truly timeless.