As we enter the second phase of Paul Thomas Anderson‘s career, it looks more and more like I will actually finish the retrospective this go-around. And just in time for the end of the year. Punch-Drunk Love is the film in which Anderson shifts from grand explorations of humanity featuring dozens of well-rounded characters to intimate character studies charged by intense actors and similarly intense filmmaking. And the man PTA chose to help him usher in this new era? Broad comedy superstar Adam Sandler. Surprisingly, it works.
Sandler stars as Barry Egan, a small-business owner whose lonely life is sporadically punctuated by the prying inquiries of his seven sisters. Despite their judgmental nit-picking and harsh words, Barry’s sisters do care for him, so one of them – Elizabeth (Mary Lynn Rajskub) – hopes to set her brother up with Lena (Emily Watson), a co-worker. The timing could be better, though, as Barry has recently found himself on the receiving end of a shake-down perpetrated by the manager of a phone sex line (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Barry struggles to keep his riotous emotions in check while finding a balance between his problems and the human connection he has longed for.
Regardless of the rest of the film, Punch-Drunk Love is immediately remarkable for the way it utilizes Sandler. The actor is able to tap into a palpable rage that adds an effective level to his titular roles in films like Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison. But in this film Anderson takes away the cool-guy charm that allowed people to root for Sandler in those earlier movies. Here he is just an awkward and anxious fellow who is also dancing on the edge of an inner volcano. But this performance is raw and relatable – the audience likes Barry even though he isn’t charming. He’s real.
Sandler brings all of that to the table, but Anderson’s screenplay gives the context for such a character. This is a guy who has been hen-pecked for 30-plus years by this cadre of overbearing women (a kind of misogynist take on gender relations, though the movie overcomes this hurdle). We see througout the film that Barry cannot confide in any of them, because whatever he says to one is immediately flipped and used against him by all of the others. This has forged a barrier between him and the rest of the world, but Lena represents a crack in that wall. At one point Barry confides in Lena and asks her to “keep it between you and I, if that’s possible.” Up to this point such privacy was unattainable; the idea that it could happen now has opened Barry up to a whole new world.
Speaking of new worlds, this is certainly a new one for PTA. Punch-Drunk Love is by far his most different film. Boogie Nights features some really funny moments, but it does not shy away from getting dark. Even in its heaviest scenes, Punch-Drunk Love never goes full bore into those depths Anderson had plumbed previously. It is a romantic comedy, or as close to one as Anderson seems capable of making. But it also feels stylistically distinct from his other work. While Jon Brion’s work-bench score and Robert Elswit’s dark cinematography scream Paul Thomas, the framing and camera moves are more reminiscent of another Anderson: Wes – with whom PTA shares no relation.
The movie is obviously a transitional one, and for good reason. It would have been ill-advised for Anderson to languish in the ensemble pool after creating two excellent entries in that canon. He chose to shake things up, and though Punch-Drunk Love exhibits some markers of a man finding his bearings in turbulent waters, Anderson has already hit upon his next great subject: the darkness pent up in lonely men.