I decided last night to make an effort to review an Adam Sandler film. This is because friends of mine have suggested I do this in the hopes that I rip into Jack & Jill. Naww, I ain’t doing that. If I’m gonna watch an Adam Sandler film I’m going to watch one that’s actually worth seeing. A film that leaves you wondering one question. Why the hell can’t he be like that all the time? Punch-drunk love it is then. Click the link below.
Punch-drunk Love is an Adam Sandler film set in a real world and made for the sake of art. What this means is that Sandler plays his usually emotionally crippled, basically good but prone to self destructive behaviour type of character, in this case upstart businessman Barry Egan. But Barry isn’t played for laughs. He doesn’t spend the film mocking anyone that isn’t Adam Sandler. He recognises he has a problem and, most importantly, wants to solve it. To add to the typical Sandler film formula he has a love interest in the form of Lena (Emily Watson) who, as is the rule of Sandler films, is inexplicably attracted to him. Except her attraction is gradually explained through her identifying as someone that needs love and that she she feels a connection to, likely because of emotional problems she herself has experienced.
Punch-drunk Love is effectively an attempt by director Paul Thomas Anderson to take the tropes that Sandler had already been using and relying on by 2002 and approaches them with the mindset of actually tackling the themes that Adam Sandler films will often only touch upon or fully overlook. If you main character is emotionally damaged and prone to bursts of anger it not only needs to be confronted but then explored. It seems the trend for modern comedies to take a serious subject matter and exploit it for buffoonery. Although I suppose it’s better than having Mickey Rooney playing a buck toothed Japanese man. What matters is what we’re seeing here is something within Sandler’s comfort zone but treated with a level of respect that has never been afforded to any characters in 90% of his other films.
The core of the story is even ripped from a regular Sandler comedy. His attempts to pursue a relationship with Lena, which he didn’t instigate due to crippling anxiety, is complicated by… and bear with me here… an attempt to scam him out of his money by a man running a phone sex line that Barry had called a few nights previously. See, pure Sandler. This antagonistic side of the film parallels the trends of many modern comedies to have one mistake or action the protagonist makes spiral constantly out of control beyond the logical point of reason. Here it is played a lot like the sort of odd sub-plots you’d get from a Coen Brothers film, in the hands of Happy Madison productions it probably would have resulted in a fat person falling over in literal shit while Sandler laughed at them. Punch-drunk love plays it as a motivating force for Barry to take control of his life and his emotions. The sequence of scenes where Barry actually makes steps to confront the man behind the chat line (A furniture salesman named Dean played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) reach euphoric levels of brilliance due tot he fact that, unlike a standard Sandler film, we’re actually emotionally invested by this point and want to see Barry get his life under control.
Normally at this point in the review I’d focus in on the lead performance, the trouble is that watching this film has given me an idea for my Weekend Dump this week. In that piece I’ll go into detail regarding Sandler as a performer but here I’ll say this. Adam Sandler gives, easily, his greatest performance. It’s amazing to think it but it turns out that little Nicky is capable of being a nuanced, multi-layered and occasionally quite dark character actor. He controls the film with a performance that is supported by strong appearances from Emily Watson and Mary Lynn Rajskub.
Paul Thomas Anderson does his usual thing of framing every shot like a painting, which is how it should be in upper tier film making. The first few scenes of the film, where Barry first meets Lena and contemplates a Harmonium left at the end of the street his warehouse is located on. The Harmonium becomes a symbol of calm for Barry, regularly he plays with it to help stop his anger from boiling over. It’s one thing in his life he can control, even fixing it with duct tape to enable him to keep using it. How this small piano like instrument gradually becomes a symbol of Barry giving up his need for concentrated control, due to new found contentment, is beautifully handled. Anderson is among the top level of modern directors. I feel like he’s one of the few to have achieved a high level of success that is entirely deserved. He understands symbolism, character and conflict better than almost any other director working at their height today.
Punch-drunk Love is absolutely a film you should watch. In 90 minutes it conveys more emotion and intricate character lead storytelling than the majority of films released these days. The film is 11 years old now and Adam Sandler seems to have forgotten that he once gave a performance that could be described as exemplary. A performance that could have been career redefining. It seems he learned nothing from this film though and has been on a steady run of starring in just terrible, awful, insipid alleged comedies for the last decade, with the possible exceptions of Funny People and Reign Over Me. Whilst I would say there are more remarkable Paul Thomas Anderson films, it would be unfair to say that Punch-drunk Love is anything less than a remarkable work.