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Ah, Adam Sandler. What are you doing in this movie? And why in the name of all that is good and decent did you never make another one like it? Barry (Sandler) is a desperately lonely man, a little unhinged, brother to seven intruding sisters, and the classic time bomb. His exterior is placid and charming, withdrawn and hopelessly acquiescent. But there is a terror simmering and he unleashes it in sudden violent moments of destruction. This sounds like a person you would want to steer far away from, but Sandler reveals a depth in his acting never seen before, and it is utterly mesmerizing. You want to heal him.
Enter the remarkable Emily Watson. Their relationship is necessarily difficult and their journey is not conventional. She is aware of who he is, but she feels no fear. She doesn’t flinch. It terrifies Barry. And more. Meanwhile, a crooked mattress salesman is extorting money from Barry with a phone sex-line. There is also a lot of pudding. Punch-Drunk Love is a surprise in every way. Sandler is nothing short of astonishing.
Scene Setup: Lena (Watson) and Barry (Sandler) have just returned from their first date. During dinner, she innocently mentioned an embarrassing story his sisters told her. He retreated to the men’s room and in a violent rage, caused some damage. Tomorrow, she leaves for Hawaii.
Why it Matters: Lena sees something is Barry most will never. Watch how she rises from couch and moves to the door, leans in for the kiss that wasn’t given. She is so sure of her own feelings and so tender with his. It’s achingly beautiful to watch. Sandler is a wonder here. The jittery speech, the self admonishment, the posture. He is painfully aware of what normal is, but it exists far beyond his reach. Watch closely his walk from the glass door to the phone. A thousand words expressed. The weight of being Barry is nearly crushing him.
More: The movie is a treasure trove. Philip Seymour Hoffman is chilling in every frame his is in, and Luiz Guzman is priceless as Sandler’s co-worker. There isn’t a bad performance in the film and it’s just one of those rare gems that every movie buff savors. Barry coming back to kiss Lena is our choice for That Moment, but not an easy one to make. His little jig in the grocery store, the wonder of the Harmonium, his confrontation with Dean. These are some of many contenders.Ultimately, the raw chemistry between Lena and Barry won us over. Barry is so tragic, so afraid of being who he is, it consumes every walking moment of his life. He struggles just to say words that he thinks are the way people should talk. Then he curses himself for saying them. Breathless, he falls into Lena when he returns, assuring her that he doesn’t “freak out” a lot, and we realize how that one single innocent, throw-away comment she laughed at over dinner has been savagely eating him apart. Let’s watch:
We don’t like Adam Sandler movies. We’ll just get that out of the way. In recent years, it isn’t even a thought. New Adam Sandler flick? Pass. About the only film we were able to get through was Wedding Singer. That had some charm to it. Then came Punch-Drunk Love. Writer/Director Paul Thomas Anderson clearly modeled the comic rage of Sandler’s earlier cartoonish man-boy characters as a template, redressing him in heavy layers of real life. While Happy Gilmore thrives explosively in the consequence-free arena of parody, Barry Evans, afflicted with similar traits, is a tinder box, wreaking internal emotional havoc. He is his own pariah.
For the Sandler we all know from his usual work (including bombs well past Punch-Drunk Love) to do what he did in this movie, we can assume one of three things happened: (a) magic exists (b) a warp in the space-time continuum inadvertently revealed the 2002 of our parallel opposite universe (c) Paul Thomas Anderson is a master film-maker able to get even average actors to become Oscar caliber thespians.
We’re going with (c), though (a) would also explain a lot about Pauly Shore.
Let’s talk about what Sandler does here under Anderson’s direction. From the opening shot, we see a man with savant abilities trapped inside a persona so damaged and frail he can barely breath. He is dressed in a new suit. Why? He thinks it will change him. He sells novelties and gag gifts next to an auto mechanic inside a dingy warehouse at the end of an alley, though appears successful. Anderson is known for injecting a lot of symbolism in his films and we see that from the start here. Early in the morning, drawn by a mysterious sound, he emerges from his cave-like warehouse into a warm sunrise where he witnesses two startling things: a car suddenly flips and crashes exactly as a red cab pulls up and drops off a used harmonium before driving off without a word.
Neither of these events are explained. Nor need they be. They are signals of Barry’s coming transformation. Barry’s life is about to explode with change, but it will deliver harmony. Lena is approaching, and indeed drives up a moment later with a car (actually swerving around the harmonium) in need of repair (a symbol of her history as well). As the mechanic shop has not opened yet, she asks Barry to watch her it until the owner arrives. She cannot wait. She gives him the keys (read into that how you like) and walks away, impressing on him that she hopes they will meet on her return. Overcome with emotion, he breathlessly cowers into the shadows. It is one of the great opening scenes in cinema.
Back to our chosen moment. We learn that Barry is fully aware of what he is and how tragically he believes he fails. His awkward, jagged farewell meets with his own condemnation, verbally abusing himself as he strides away. We suspect there is something nearby that will suffer his rage. The phone call as he exits breaks his purpose and there is a teetering moment with the glass doors where we are not sure if he will go through or come back. That he opens them halfway and waits is telling. As we mentioned, the walk to the phone is a wonder. To this point, the phone has been a recurring source of unendurable pain and frustration as calls from his incessantly insensitive sisters and the phone sex-line extortionist continually cause him stress. “This is Barry,” he says. Yes, it is.
Lena understands him deeply and with her touching words, releases him of his terrible burden. His search for her apartment is the shedding of that weight. Their embrace, him burying his head in her shoulder frees him. All things change.
Time to talk about the pudding. Based on an actual event, Barry discovers a loophole in a Healthy Choice promo and is able to accumulate a million air-miles by purchasing products that are far less expensive than the tickets. This satisfies him immensely (see clip below). Until Lena, he had no motivation to use said miles, but as she has traveled to Hawaii, things fall into place. During the little jig, you can here him say, “It’s gonna work. I’m coming, Lena, I’m coming.” The scene is a delight as it features our usually tepid and rigid Barry in an uncompromising public display of joy.
This is just another example of Anderson’s filmmaking mastery. The movie initially seems a series of odd unrelated events, flickering through a few rambling moments in Barry’s existence. The patchwork is forming a larger picture and Thomas deftly leads us to see how it all has meaning.
That’s really what makes the movie fun. It’s quirky, following many of the signature styles and motifs of the director. We would be remiss though in not mentioning the wonderfully bouncy and unconventional soundtrack by Jon Brion. It feels just right while watching one film’s most endearing characters.
Take a listen: Jon Brion – Here We Go
Paul Thomas Anderson is one our favorite directors. He is far from prolific, releasing films typically several years apart. When he does, there is a quality and style to them that are uniquely his, and draws from his actors some of their finest work. Like Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, Adam Sandler is able to create a character so rich, so defining, that it changed entirely how critics and movie-goers perceived him. What might have begun an incredible dramatic career though was not to be. For reasons we won’t explore, Sandler decided to stick to his old wheelhouse and churn out his brand of poorly-made goofy comedies, racking up Golden Raspberry Awards rather than Oscars. Still, we have this gem to fall back on and enjoy exploring what could have been.
It’s why when we talk movies, we love that moment in . . . Punch-Drunk Love.