In 2002, Punch-Drunk Love was a brilliantly subversive romantic comedy that divided audiences
Paul Thomas Anderson is not a normal director. When I say that, I don't just mean that he is a gifted auteur. While he most certainly is a gifted auteur, that's mostly incidental. PTA has a strange, strange vision of the world and the stories that he chooses to tell about it. When he shows up, though, it is almost always a magical experience--even when that experience is bizarre and exhausting.
In 2002, Punch-Drunk Love was always going to be an infamous project, if for no other reason than the casting choices--particularly the casting choice of Adam Sandler as the film's lead. Sandler, who had spent his cinematic time heretofore making boat loads of money yelling at golf balls and beating the shit out of Bob Barker and Col. Sanders was a deliberately....askew choice to be sure. But it was also fascinating, given PTA's pedigree and reputation for bold film making up to this point. It all ran the risk of being a bit gimmicky, but that was also kind of a cynical way to look at things. And Punch-Drunk Love is not cynical.
When looking at Punch-Drunk Love (and any aspect of it), it is nothing if not earnest. This is one of the film's defining characteristics, and it is all the better for it. The other aspect, of course, is its oddness. Anderson intentionally offsets not only your expectations, but the way you view the film with a dizzying, exhausting atmosphere that builds tension and confusion as it moves along. If this sounds off-putting, I assure you it is. This is what happens when the mind behind Boogie Nights and Magnolia tackles the "rom-com:" it's completely dazzling, unique and unforgettable. But Anderson also stays true to the film's mission statement: this is unquestionably a love story.
As a love story, Punch-Drunk Love is anchored beautifully by two unlikely leads with an unlikely amount of chemistry and tenderness. As Barry Egan, Sandler plays up his crippling oddness and vulnerability here with such delicate hands, it's nothing short of impressive that the character doesn't become a caricature. Conversely, the intoxicating and graceful Emily Watson portrays Lena Leonard with an honesty and confidence that plays off of Sandler's palpable insecurities with both a world weariness and hopeful outlook. But their courtship is not for everyone.
Barry and Lena's relationship is certainly bizarre at times, but always a fascinating examination of what happens when puzzle pieces fit together while creating a wholly inexplicable picture. It's not even entirely clear why they work so well, but that's a large part of its overall success. This superficially extends to the film itself as well.
Punch-Drunk Love's story details very weirdly marry the subplot of Barry's OCD manifesting in his obsessive attempts to expose a loophole involving rewards points and frequent flyer miles, as well as an extortion plot involving the exploitation of shy losers calling into a phone sex line. Which is, honestly, exhausting to recount. Punch-Drunk Love, though, embraces its outlandishness and flourishes in the compelling universe that it has created. It makes for an uncommon journey through the underworld that is finding yourself through finding love.
Punch-Drunk Love sticks out like something of a sore thumb in a Paul Thomas Anderson's catalog, which is filled with critical successes and a list of award winning ventures. The film was not only peculiar and off putting, but it had the unfortunate task of presenting an established pop culture entity in sharp refrain. That's a difficult property to to sell, and Punch-Drunk Love's singular identity didn't mesh well with the public's desire to see a goofball fail. Ultimately, though, the film is brash and brave, while definitely deeply silly and fanciful. It's a joyous act of letting go that stings and heals in equal measures.