Savannah Oakes’s review published on Letterboxd:
“I don’t know if there is anything wrong because I don’t know how other people are.”
Paul Thomas Anderson is a hard director to pin down. On one hand it can be fairly obvious when you’re watching one of his films--the long tracking shots, frequently used actors, stylistic tricks--but then there are films like this that don’t fit exactly into any of his usual boxes. It’s got all the shapings of a comedy and drama. From the opening credits it is clear that this is going to be as weird as his films tend to be. It’s essentially what would happen if Buster Keaton made a modern, talkie film. Adam Sandler is all stone-faced and repressed as the protagonist Barry. Emily Watson is the spunky, go-get it girl he loves and goes on a literal and emotional journey for. Meanwhile there’s a crazy the-world-is-out-to-get-me plot surrounding and obstructing their inevitable connection. PT Anderson knows how to write a script that encapsulates all of these elements but puts his unique and maddening touch on it--that brilliant, soulful genius.
The film is very much reminiscent of Lars and the Real Girl in that it features a mentally unstable protagonist pushed to social interaction by family so that he can have a healthy relationship. Lars and the Real Girl with all its indie, twee goodness could never convey the level of unrest that this film captures. Punch-Drunk Love is a very structured and composed piece of filmmaking. The framing and the camerawork are subtle for PTA but convey the film’s story just as well as he usually does. Similarly, the production design and lighting though frequently more flashy in his work is just as turned down. It is all so simple but somehow more powerful.
Every ounce of this drips with anxiety from the distant frames, subtle camera, to the suffocating, drowning score, to the almost unbearable performance of Adam Sandler. The audience is given moments of catharsis where--like Barry--we are allowed to explode along with him. His outbursts are sudden, painful and slightly comedic but then there are sequences like the crowbar fight in the street where his outburst is directed at the right people and at the right moment. He has grown and with this new found relationship will continue to grow.
Adam Sandler was once the king of comedy and he brings his intelligence for comedy into this film. However, he brings a lot of loneliness and sorrow too, that is tough for any actor to convey. He, like Buster Keaton, must retain his composure until he can handle it no longer. Watching Sandler perform this role is probably the most anxiety ridden I’ve ever been watching a film. He can explode at any moment but one watches and admires how respectful and patient he is until he has to break his composure. His performance in this is really unbelievable. How often do we actually get to see an actor at extreme discomfort actually blushing for an extended period of time. That is not a bodily experience one can fake too easily or this successfully. This is as close to the real Adam Sandler that I feel comfortable getting but one I wish he would let us see more of as his career circles to the bottom of the drain.
It helps that the supporting cast is bolstered by such fine actors. Emily Watson who plays Lena the romantic interest for Barry is a delight. She is fearless and charming while at the same time not coming off as creepy or insane. She’s the person the audience wants to seem him love. PTA frequent Luis Guzmán gets to be a comedic breath of fresh air throughout. Mary Lynn Rajskub plays Barry’s well-meaning but frustrated sister well and surprisingly comedically. The incomparable Philip Seymour Hoffman shows up only briefly to intimidate and to yell “Shut up! Shut up the fuck up!” and other variations of that. It was amazing--both funny and terrifying in a way only PSH can--excuse me--could do. What all these actors do well--and surely PT Anderson had a handle on while directing them--was how each and every one of them, despite their relationships and intentions are a source of anxiety for Barry. They are not all textbook villains but it is important to communicate just how much and to what extent Barry is fearful of his interactions with them. As much as the aesthetic aspects of the film are responsible for conveying the anxiety so to were the actors and they all bounced off the walls well.
Punch-Drunk Love is not a dark comedy or a melodramatic romance but it features the trappings of all of them. It’s about isolation, loneliness, anxiety and fear of sharing yourself with the people and world that surrounds you. Ultimately it is about love and it’s infinite definitions. It is about the love we cannot articulate, the love we give to others and the love we protect and hide within ourselves. It can be unconventional but it can save even the messiest of us. Despite missing the bold and stylistic approach of most of his films, PTA strengthens the film with its bold and moving relationship, which despite not featuring a lot beneath the surface, shows a lot about the power and endurance of individuals.