Punch-Drunk Love

Punch-Drunk Love ★★★★

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Adam Sandler’s films are derived by the sense of anxiety and frustration of a man who cannot seem to find reach his inner most desires; in essence, his films mark a poignancy that validates such a character, and more often than not, they are ignited by the relationships they fortunately stumble on — whether it may be the father-son dynamic of Big Daddy or the dedicated affection shared by the complicated circumstances in 50 First Dates. This is an actor who understands the humanity that exists within the lonely hearted and emotionally deprived, it is unfortunate that most of it becomes lost in the sea of madness in his cherished humour, a relentless leaning on the crass and impulsiveness that resonates only a temporary mild satisfaction.

Paul Thomas Anderson has spoken uncompromisingly of his affection towards Sandler and his films, infected by his ability to draw laughter out of the obvious and immature, possibly fascinated and aware of the pitiful truth that lurks underneath him. It was a collaboration that drew laughter of those with little faith — even I would have turned and scoffed — but to my surprise, Punch-Drunk Love manages to primarily succeed in its intentions, it thoroughly captures the essence behind Sandler’s common persona, arousing it to the point of palpability, shaping a figure that is both familiar and jarring upon initial inspection.

In many of Sandler’s films, their anxieties seem to be sourced by stimuli that feels far too convenient in its development, a lack of rigour that prevents our minds to enter further and deconstruct the contents that may personally reward the audience. Anderson has remarkably sourced his protagonist’s angsts through the fundamental factors that run through his life; family, women, money — accumulative in their burden, a weight that has destroyed his capabilities to withstand social conventions and maintain healthy relationships. The women in Barry Egan’s life — notably his sisters — are relentless in their teases and meddling, evoking themselves as intrusive rather than concerned through Barry’s eyes, and through Anderson’s meticulous choice of words, shaping a perspective of some of his sisters as caring yet flawed in their approach.

This toxic chemistry between Barry and women are further pressed through a night of vulnerability, a desperate need for nurture and relief, inspired by an ad, he calls a sex hotline that hopes to remedy that swallowing loneliness that plagues him. A moment of weakness leads him within the grips of opportunists stationed in Utah, specialising in blackmail and manipulation, hoping to profit from the social fracture that defines their character. A sub-plot that places Barry under physical, psychological and emotional threat, initiated by the soothing voice of Georgia Peach (Ashley Clark) and managed by the wolf-like Dean Trumbell (Philip Seymour Hoffman). It is a territory that Anderson boldly and firmly establishes a darkly comic aura that initially feels too outlandish for a film that basks in the arthouse romantics, yet it fits as its integrity remains pure through the context that Anderson instils in progressing Barry’s development — it solidifies and expands on the capabilities, vulnerability, and passion from a character that may seem further cryptic if remained singular in its pathway. It reflects the grand sense of burden that exists within Barry’s life, and due to Anderson’s intelligence, he manages to reflect such conditions without simple exposition and alienating condescension.

Lena Leonard (Emily Watson) would prove herself to be the shining beacon that has entered into Barry’s life, a woman that finally provides him the attribute of respect and adoration that has long been unfulfilled in his life. Her presence inspires Barry to share a relationship built upon complete trust, a polar pathway between him and his sisters, one that pushes him into redemption that would only be apparent by his own and our eyes, while others around him remain puzzled by his decisions and actions — even Lena to some degree — but nevertheless a personally rewarding one, a familiar yet unorthodox transformation of the fundamental Sandler character. Along with Lena’s inclusion to a once isolated and awkward life, is the odd arrival of a harmonium, its symbolism initially impenetrable but eventually apparent in its purpose, highlighted through a subtle commensal relationship, a critical buffer to his explosive madness, unwilling to be stamped though simple exposition from the protagonist himself, we see its purpose take effect through the calming transition that Barry endures in moments of rising heat. Lena and the harmonium came at a time that found him at his lowest, a man at his most determined to project an image of rising success, despite the uncertain and snail-like pacing of its growth, it brought relief at a point that could have easily destroyed him.

Punch-Drunk Love is a film that manages to captures the impossible, a transformation of the Sandler persona that would have been baffling and most likely impossible if under less passionate hands. It is a feature that resists the comforting warmth that a romance should — and for that, it does hurt its chance at attaining excellence — but it is an experiment that speaks upon in great volume, shifting our way in viewing the familiar elements, both in genre and character, that unfortunately did not completely take hold of Sandler’s career trajectory; but no doubt it is a noted highlight that would shine brightly in both Sandler and Anderson’s careers.

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