A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Friday, July 29, 2016

Punch-Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002)

Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love
Comedy in general often involves characters we would avoid in real life, and screwball comedy, of the type that flourished in the movies of the 1930s and '40s, tends to feature characters that we might otherwise have expected to be incarcerated or committed for treatment. Would we really hang out with Cary Grant's paleontologist and the leopard-coddling socialite Katharine Hepburn of Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks, 1938)? Wouldn't we call the cops on Barbara Stanwyck's con artist and shy away from the snake-hunting Henry Fonda of The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941)? But meeting them in movies is a delight. Punch-Drunk Love is a latter-day screwball comedy with a protagonist, Barry Egan (Adam Sandler), who verges on being a sociopath. At the beginning of the movie, he is standing on the sidewalk when a car crashes with a spectacular end-over-end flip, and just moments later, a van pulls up and deposits a harmonium on the street and drives off. Most of us would call the police and go in aid of the people in the crash, but Barry takes it all in his stride. We never hear about the crash again, and only the next day does Barry pick up the harmonium and move it into his office. (It's blocking the driveway to the row of businesses in which his oddball company is located.) The more we learn about Barry, the stranger he becomes: He has crying jags and violent outbursts, and he calls a phone-sex line -- giving them all manner of personal information including his Social Security number, which any sane person knows not to do -- and then just wants to chat with the woman who answers. Eventually, he falls in love with Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), a friend of Elizabeth (Mary Lynn Rajskub), one of his seven very annoying sisters. Miraculously, Lena accepts him for what he is. Baldly stated, none of Punch-Drunk Love really makes a lot of sense, and yet it turns into an oddly charming movie. Then again, this is a film written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, who gave us a denouement in Magnolia (1999) that included a rain of frogs. Whatever else you may say about Anderson -- like, for example, that he can be a very self-indulgent filmmaker -- he has a way of keeping us hooked, of luring us into a world of his own. He overlays scenes with odd percussive music composed by Jon Brion, and the song that accompanies Barry and Lena's big love scene is Harry Nilsson's "He Needs Me," sung by Shelley Duvall in Popeye (Robert Altman, 1980). Not to mention, of course, that he casts Sandler as his romantic lead, and has him wear a bright blue suit that seems to be made out of microfiber cleaning cloths. I have never seen any of Sandler's other films, and considering the reviews I probably won't, but he gives a very good performance here, somehow holding together a film that could have flown apart at any moment.