Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson. Starring Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, Luis Guzman

“This is Barry,” Barry (Sandler) says whenever he picks up the phone. It’s one of those friendly touches one adds to whatever entrepreneurs call bedside manner – “Yes, ma’am, there is a real live human on the other end of this line!” – and it’s also like a mantra. Barry is hard to pin down. He’s a person who is mealy-mouthed and sober when he comes to a party with his seven sisters and their families, destroys a sliding glass door most of the way through the party after being ragged about having broken a door with a hammer as a kid, and then cries to his brother-in-law about his feelings. You’re a doctor, Barry says, clearly reaching out for help. I’m a dentist, his brother-in-law replies. It’s the kind of swing which is typical for him. In his best moments, or at least his normal ones, Barry really does appear to be a more or less even-keeled human being. He’s calm at work, even when he has accidentally obliterated a plunger he’s trying to sell on the promise that its handle is unbreakable. (“This is embarrassing.”) But he is angered by people who seem to need the get the better of him, as his sisters inevitably do, and that pressure valve always breaks and he breaks with it. In those even-keeled moments, he’s still deeply strange; he wears the same blue suit all the time, goes into the road to rescue a harmonium, and has an eye for frequent flyer mile codes on pudding cups, stocking hundreds of them outside his office. The idea of getting a beer with him is repulsive. At his deepest levels, and even at some surface ones, he is a genuinely nice guy.

When Sandler was on SNL, you could count my age on one hand. When he started to become a big star, I was in elementary school and still watching Disney movies and Gettysburg (seriously) if I was watching movies at all. I have no nostalgic feelings about him, and in truth only started to come to movies when Sandler had become something of a punching bag; either he was performing in middling melodramas (SpanglishFunny PeopleGrown Ups) or he was playing the kind of idiot roles that brought him to prominence in the mid-’90s (I Now Pronounce You Chuck and LarryJack and Jill.) I don’t think any of Sandler’s roles are anything like what he played in Punch-Drunk Love, which is, simply, someone strange. As a strange person I think he’s absolutely great; he has something of Peter Sellers in him in this movie, which seems as unlikely as Sandler having something of the Marquis de Sade in his performance. The best example I can think of from the film comes when he’s turning the lights off before going to bed one night. He has a nice enough apartment, but it’s the kind of place where it’s not worth turning on many lights because no one else is in there. He doesn’t have a bed, just a mattress. As he’s lying there, looking sort of like a sloth hanging from a tree branch, he claps his hands twice. It’s a grandiose sort of clap, like if you were trying to enunciate with your hands. The lights turn off; of course he has a Clapper. He is the Simon Rattle of Clapper owners. It is totally brilliant, and I’m not sure many other actors besides Sandler could have made that five-second sequence pay off so beautifully. It’s an unusual niche to try to fill, and not one that makes the film a whole bunch of money back, but Sandler is right in this part. He always seems a little hunched over even when he doesn’t mean to be. The way he runs is so awkward, and the way he carries objects is funnier still. His speech is so quiet, and so many of his pronouncements are utterly ridiculous. His line readings are great works of art in themselves; his monologues involving pudding cups are said so seriously, and he is so serious about the frequent flyer miles, that his voice has the kind of muted passion typically associated with those guys who do model trains in their basement. It would hardly be a Paul Thomas Anderson movie without a weird sex angle, and the weird sex angle in this film is that Sandler calls such a line – and reluctantly accepts their request for a phone number, credit card, and Social Security number – and needs conversation. It’s not out of left field or anything, but it’s still so unusual that it’s almost more uncomfortable than listening to Adam Sandler have a genuine phone sex conversation. (He’ll later call that number back in a rage, demanding to speak to the woman’s supervisor, like she works at State Farm or something.) The long and short of this is that while this movie could work without Sandler, I’m not sure there’s a long list of contemporary replacements who could have sold it. The irony is that Punch-Drunk Love, because of its star helming it, is occasionally disappointing to its viewers expecting one of those inane Sandler comedies; you can find them in the Amazon reviews, wondering why this movie wasn’t funnier.

If this isn’t a critique of modern art, I don’t know what is: when Jung undertook an analysis of Picasso, he compared Picasso’s work starting with his Blue Period to the artwork created by his patients, and his conclusion was that Picasso might have been manifesting his schizophrenia through his avant-garde art. It’s sort of a fanciful idea and one which can’t help but romanticize mental illness and art, which is a flimsy intellectual foundation for studying aesthetics in the first place). All the same, I thank Jung for the the hint at what’s up with Barry through the repeated use of blue in the film. He wears that blue suit from the first scene on, but there’s also a handsome blue stripe on the wall behind him when he makes a phone call about the frequent flyer miles and the pudding. There are blue shadows everywhere, in Barry’s apartment and in the nighttime he has to go into after some toughs from Utah wreck his car. The EXIT signs in an apartment building he goes into are blue. He spends a little time in the (blue) Hawaii gloaming. And the light which comes through the skylights in his warehouse office are themselves a shocking blue. Barry’s literally violent mood swings may have more to do with a sort of schizophrenia, with a proliferation of different Barrys to work around, than anyone is willing to consider or work with. When he picks up the phone and says “This is Barry” for the umpteenth time, the implication that there might be someone else under there begins to creep into our own minds. The Barry trying to sell plungers for a living is not the same Barry who can make it look like a tornado swept through a restaurant restroom, nor is that Barry the same one who uses a tire iron to make it look like a tornado swept through those blonde dudes from Utah.

The plot of the movie when it gives Barry something to do besides mutter seems like an extravagance the film doesn’t want. Barry falls for a woman named Lena (Watson), who seems interested in him as well but whose job takes her away from L.A. pretty frequently. His growing relationship with her is problematized by the phone sex line he called, which we could tell was predatory but which Barry did not seem to expect to be that predatory. Barry, in an effort to protect Lena from the sinister forces arrayed against him by a mattress store owner named Dean Trumbull (Philip Seymour Hoffman) eventually goes out to Utah to engage in a man-to-man showdown which never really comes to pass. If you’ve seen Victim – yeah, the Basil Dearden movie about blackmailing homosexuals in ’60s London – this should all ring a bell, down to the way that the blackmailers are especially keen on calling their marks “perverts.” As far as plots go, it’s fine. It begins to flower about the same time as we begin to be invested in Barry’s love life, and despite the best efforts to make them work together, the two simply don’t pull in the same direction; Barry opening up to intimacy just don’t go with Barry turning into a vigilante to defend himself.

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