Adam Sandler has become such a reliable conveyor belt of cinematic schlock that people forget he once had aspirations beyond Dennis Dugan’s truly dreadful film Jack and Jill (2011), in which Sandler plays both Jack and Jill, the latter in drag, managing to rope Al Pacino and Katie Holmes into the film in the process.

As if to offer confirmation of this downward trend, Sandler recently signed a deal for four straight-to-VOD features with Netflix, commenting “when these fine people came to me with an offer to make four movies for them, I immediately said yes for one reason and one reason only. Netflix rhymes with Wet Chicks. Let the streaming begin!” (1)

So it’s hard to remember that once upon a time, Sandler had plans for making more ambitious films, and that, indeed, he was ever involved with a director of Paul Thomas Anderson’s caliber, or that the resultant film, Punch-Drunk Love (2002), would win Anderson the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film festival that year, an honour Anderson shared with Kwon-taek Im for his film Painted Fire (2002).

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But it’s true – Adam Sandler once sought to move beyond more obvious film fare and really stretch himself as an actor, and this rather remarkable film is the end result. Often referred to as “the Adam Sandler movie for people who don’t like Adam Sandler movies” – count me in with that group – Punch-Drunk Love is a bizarre comedy with serious overtones that scored heavily with critics, but lost money at the box office, a factor that probably led to Sandler’s subsequent involvement with nothing more than a string of absolute lowest common denominator moneymakers.

And yet the project came about because Anderson, fresh off the resounding critical success of his critical and commercial hit Magnolia (1999), was exhausted, and wanted to do a simpler film with Sandler in the lead. Indeed, Anderson admired Sandler’s energy and intensity immensely, and reasoned he could easily shape a film with Sandler as the central protagonist.

Magnolia runs three hours plus, has more than a dozen major characters, and a plot so complex it defies description. With Punch-Drunk Love, Anderson was trying to simplify things. As he told critic John Patterson shortly after Magnolia’s release, “somebody I’d really like to use is Adam Sandler. I just cry with laughter in his movies. He’s just a powerhouse. All of his films are really solid . . .  [and] I’m determined it’ll be 90 minutes.” (2) And lo, Anderson got his wish, and the finished film is indeed just 95 minutes long, and arguably contains Sandler’s best work to date.

Punch-Drunk Love’s surreal tone is set in the first few moments, as archetypal loser Barry Egan (Sandler), the proprietor of a bathroom plunger company, works alone in the early morning at a desk in a seemingly deserted warehouse. Wandering outside into the street for no particular reason, Barry witnesses a mysterious, violent car crash, after which a Checker Cab pulls up to the curb, and someone places a small piano (actually, a harmonium) on the sidewalk.

Moments later, a young woman, Lena Leonard (Emily Watson) pulls into the parking lot, and talks Barry into holding her keys until the auto repair shop next door opens, and then vanishes into the distance. Barry watches her leave, and then impulsively grabs the harmonium, and drags it into the warehouse. One of his co-workers, Lance (Luis Guzmán) arrives for work, and Barry proudly shows off his new acquisition, leaving Lance distinctly unimpressed.

What follows is a series of equally bizarre sequences, in which Barry is mercilessly hectored by his domineering sisters, even as tries to sell plungers to various clients without notable success. Barry then attempts to relieve his loneliness and boredom by using the services of a sex phone line, while simultaneously working on a plan to rack up frequent flier miles by purchasing massive amounts of Healthy Choice pudding, so he can “get away from it all.”  (This last scheme, believe it or not, is based on the exploits of one David Phillips, who successfully pulled this off in real life). (3)

This leads eventually to a romantic liaison in Hawaii with Lena – it develops that the entire meeting between Lena and Barry has been set up by Barry’s sister Elizabeth (Mary Lynn Rajskub) – and much later to a confrontation with the proprietor of the sex phone line, one Dean Trumbell (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose hired thugs have been threatening Barry with physical violence to collect on some trumped up charges for his dubious services, a meeting in which Barry, surprisingly, emerges the victor.

Punch-Drunk Love ends on an upbeat note, as a newly confident Barry comes clean with Lena about his sex phone escapade, which doesn’t seem to bother her; rather, she embraces Barry as he plays the harmonium, and suggests that they have a future together – though what that future might precisely be, we have no idea. Yet for the moment, all is well – and that’s all we can count on in life, the film seems to say. When that moment comes around, grab it; there’s no guarantee it will come again.

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At intervals throughout the film, the screen explodes in a barrage of shapes and colours designed by Jeremy Blake, exactly as Ozu uses “pillow shots” in his films to link sequences in the film’s narrative together. The whole film, in fact, proceeds like a fever dream, or perhaps a nightmare. So, in a very real sense, Punch-Drunk Love is a studio financed experimental film; a personal statement in the guise of genre entertainment.

This brief outline of the film really gives very little away, for Punch-Drunk Love is a film about details, and above all performances – Emily Watson has never been better, even in Lars von Trier’s Breaking The Waves (1996), and except for his work in Bennett Miller’s Capote (2005), the late Philip Seymour Hoffman has seldom been more energetic and engaged; it’s nice to see him at work so effectively before his sad decline began.

Thankfully, Sandler tones down his usual “wacky” shtick to deliver an everyman performance with a real edge of bathetic need; in one particularly humiliating sequence, while on a date in a restaurant with Lena, Barry becomes so upset over his sisters’ domination of him that he excuses himself from the table, destroys the men’s room, and then returns as if nothing had happened, only to be apprehended by the management and summarily ejected.

None of this is played, really, for laughs; it’s more about the absurdity of life, the chance relationships that occur, the inexplicable events that alter our destiny, and the need to keep on striving no matter what obstacles one might encounter. For once, Sandler’s sad Sack persona is put to good use in a film, and Anderson directs him masterfully, but it’s easy to see why Punch-Drunk Love wasn’t a hit.

For all the eccentric comedy in the film, Punch-Drunk Love is really a movie about the essentiality of human relationships, a theme that runs through all of Anderson’s work. In his later films, Sandler threw this aspect of his persona away, and worked with directors who more or less did his bidding, rather than offering him an alternative universe in which to work.

The public wanted Sandler in much broader strokes, and, as it turned out, Sandler was eager to comply with their demands. Punch–Drunk Love thus stands as a unique exemplar in Sandler’s film work, and in Anderson’s oeuvre – a film to treasure, and one of a kind.

Endnotes

1. Ben Child, “Adam Sandler Signs Exclusive Four Films Deal with Netflix,” The Guardian 2 Oct.  2014 http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/oct/02/adam-sandler-netflix-movie-deal.

2. John Patterson, “Magnolia Maniac,” The Guardian 9 March 2000
http://www.theguardian.com/film/2000/mar/10/culture.features.

3. Barbara Mikkelson, “Pudding on the Ritz,” Snopes 12 June 2013
http://www.snopes.com/business/deals/pudding.asp.

 

Punch-Drunk Love (2002 USA 95 min)

Prod Co: New Line Cinema, Revolution Studios and Ghoulardi Film Company  Prod: Paul Thomas Anderson, Daniel Lupi and JoAnne Sellar  Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson Scr: Paul Thomas Anderson  Phot: Robert Elswit  Ed: Leslie Jones  Art Dir: Sue Chan  Mus: Jon Brion

Cast: Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, Luis Guzmán, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mary Lynn Rajskub

About The Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, editor of the book series Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture for Rutgers University Press.Dixon’s book A Short History of Film (2008, co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster) was reprinted six times through 2012. A second, revised edition was published in 2013; a third revised edition is forthcoming in 2017. The book is a required text in universities throughout the world.Dixon’s book Black & White Cinema: A Brief History (2015) was featured on Turner Classic Movies as part of their series “Artists in Black and White.” Just published is Dixon’s newest book, A Brief History of Comic Book Movies (co-authored with Richard Graham (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).