The Paul Thomas Anderson Retrospective Part 4: Punch-Drunk Love

The Paul Thomas Anderson Retrospective continues! Last time, we looked at the interlinking narratives that connected in Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson’s biggest, most ambitious film. Today, though, we’ll see him scale back to make the quirky, surrealist “rom-com” (If you can call it that) Punch-Drunk Love.

As usual, there will be spoilers in this analysis. Nothing major, like in the Magnolia and Boogie Nights pieces, but it’s still recommended that you see the film first. So if you haven’t seen it yet, you can easily do so because it’s the only Paul Thoms Anderson movie that’s on Netflix Instant Watch, as of this writing.

Also, much like the last installment, I’m going to be employing several clips as examples for the filmmaking techniques that Anderson uses throughout the film, so make sure your connection is good enough to be buffering plenty of videos. Plus, some of the clips contain some strong language, so if that’s not your thing, you’ve been warned.

With all that being said, let’s buy some pudding and take a closer look at Punch-Drunk Love.

“I’m a nice man. I mind my own business. So you tell me ‘that’s that’ before I beat the hell from you. I have so much strength in me you have no idea. I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine. I would say ‘that’s that’, Mattress Man. “

Last time, I went on a brief tangent on the difference between the “favorite” and the “best”. I went on to say that I thought Magnolia was Paul Thomas Anderson’s “best” movie, but it wasn’t my personal “favorite”. Well, prepare for a shock, you guys, because Punch-Drunk Love, easily his smallest and strangest film, is my favorite film that he’s made. If that wasn’t surprising enough, I’d also like to point out that it’s also one of my favorite movies of all time. It’s the kind of movie that I watch and after every viewing I always feel exhilirated beyond belief.

Punch-Drunk Love is the story of a man named Barry Egan (Adam Sandler). Barry is a complete mess of emotions. He’s alone, he’s the owner of a novelty toilet plunger company, he’s prone to spasms of blind rage, he’s unbearably shy around women, and he will sometimes cry at random moments without knowing why. All of this can be traced back to his seven sisters, who have emotionally abused and teased him throughout his entire life. All he longs for is an intimate relationship with someone he can trust, who can see past the damage that his sisters wrought on him.

This somebody comes in the form of Lena (Emily Watson), a blonde, almost ethereally kind soul who became infatuated with him just by looking at a picture of him. She wants to learn more about him, while he’s still too shy to even consider going on a date with her. Eventually, he sees that she’s someone who can have that intimate, trusting relationship with him that he’s always wanted. The only thing getting in his way from being with her forever is a sinister phone-sex company attempting to scam him of his money, thinking he’s a rich business man.

I hate doing this, but I feel like I need to make something absolutely clear. Almost all of the film’s detractors dismiss Punch-Drunk Love as a messy ball of quirkiness that is empty of any meaning. I’m usually not the kind of guy who does this, but anyone who thinks of it as that is wrong. Yes, they all have a right to their opinion, but I also have a right to believe that their opinion is formed by a misconception.

When you think of a movie about quirky characters doing quirky things, you think of those indie comedies like Juno or Little Miss Sunshine, comedies in which the characters’ quirks are something to laugh at. While those films aren’t terrible, they don’t use the quirkiness to show insights into human nature, instead using them to create farcical situations and characters that stand out. Like or dislike those films, any character introspection there is in those films doesn’t come from the quirks, and instead comes from other factors depending on your opinion of the film (Many people believe those films have zero insight, but that’s an entirely different argument that I’m not the most well-versed in).

If you think about it, many of Adam Sandler’s other films belong in the definition of a quirky comedy. Sure, they may not have anything in common with Juno, but they fit the definition of quirk: A peculiar behavioral habit.

In order to understand Punch-Drunk Love, we have to understand the character-type of all of Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison pictures (And yes, I consider myself an expert in his films because I saw almost all of them as a 12 year old). All of Sandler’s films are about man-children who either a.) learn to overcome their childishness and mature, or b.) stay the same while everyone else learns something from their immaturity. They all use quirks to create humor, but they don’t really offer much insight.

But if you look closely and overanalyze these characters, for all their niceness and naivete, his characters hide a hostility towards society. You see this in Happy Gilmore, where he can be the nicest guy in the world, yet when someone or something gets him to snap, he yells and swears and goes on a spree of rage. You also see this in The Wedding Singer, in which he’s normally soft-spoken and wishes to brighten people’s weddings with songs, only to end up as a drunk who wishes people’s marriages a terrible ending when his own fiance abandons him. If you think about it, his characters can be downright insane, and his movies never seem to acknowledge that fact.

This is where Paul Thomas Anderson comes in. Roger Ebert said it best in his review of the film when he quoted filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. He wrote in the review, “The way to criticize a movie, Godard famously said, is to make another movie. In that sense Punch-Drunk Love is film criticism.” Paul Thomas Anderson himself admitted to being a fan of Sandler’s films. However, when you see what he does with the Adam Sandler character when he gets to work with him, you realize that as much as he seems to like those films, he knows that something is missing in them.

This is why Punch-Drunk Love is so brilliant. He takes the quirks often associated in those kinds of films, and peels them back to reveal them for what they truly are: The product of severe neurosis. There is humor in the film, but it’s very dark and all of it is undercut with a deep sense of sadness and discomfort. Barry Egan is a deeply disturbed individual, who freaks out at the slightest tease against him. At any single moment, he could very well snap. So to anyone who thinks that the movie is just quirkiness for the sake of quirkiness, perhaps the reason why you didn’t find it charming or enjoyable is because it’s not meant to be. Rather, it exposes those mannerisms in a different, more realistic and honest light, showing that there’s nothing really “adorable” about someone with those qualities and revealing the sadness that lurks in them.

There are many deeply uncomfortable scenes, and many of them are thanks in large part to Adam Sandler’s performance. It may not sound like much when I say that this is the best performance of Adam Sandler’s career, but I also think that this is one of the most subtly nuanced comedic (if you can call it that) performances ever put to film. Take a look at this scene in which he goes to his sisters’ party.

Notice the way he contemplates leaving the second he hears them gossipping about how they used to call him “gayboy”. Or how about the way he acts completely surprised, scared even, when another one of his sisters pops up from behind him. Or that moment just before he starts kicking the glass, where he looks like he’s so desperately holding in his deeply pent-up emotions.

Sandler embodies this character entirely. He’s always on edge, but never obviously so. He’s a deeply sad individual to watch, yet at the same time, there’s something always endearing about him too. As depressing as he is, we want to see him pull through because he means well and he always tries to be nice even when society won’t allow him to. His performance is something to behold, and shows that no matter how many Jack and Jills he makes, he is a legitimate actor who does have major talent in him.

But Sandler isn’t the only one who completely embodies Barry Egan. Paul Thomas Anderson films this picture in a way that is so in sync with Barry’s state of mind that it reaches levels both uncomfortable and sublime. You remember when I mentioned that Anderson always experiments in some way with audiovisual filmmaking in his work? The firecrackers from Boogie Nights? The musical number in Magnolia? I brought up the fact that he kept evolving on this technique until finally perfecting it. Well, Punch-Drunk Love is where he finally gets it down. The thing that truly makes Punch-Drunk Love such a bold film is its audiovisual style.

You see, Punch-Drunk Love is one of the greatest examples of idiosyncratic, stream-of-consciousness filmmaking ever made. Now before you bring up films like The Weather Man or The Informant!, which contain stream-of-consciousness dialogue, there’s a difference between writing it and filming it. This is one of the only movies I could think of where every single element has been optimized in the service of bringing the viewer into the exact mindset of the protagonist. Not just the acting or the writing, but the soundtrack, the cinematography, the sound design, the production design, the costume design, even the lighting, literally everything has been pain-stakingly crafted to put you into the mind of the neurotic Barry Egan.

For example, here are the first 10 minutes of the film…

There’s something incredibly odd about the very first shot of the film; mainly the set-design. Notice the odd placement of Barry’s desk. It’s just set in the corner of what looks to be a cheap garage, like a boat lost at sea. Right from the first frame of the film, we know for a fact that Barry Egan is alone in the world. Then, Barry opens the door and goes outside. When he does, everything is deathly quiet for a few moments as the camera glides towards the street. It’s almost entirely silent until an ungodly loud crash is heard when a car literally flips in front of him. Directly after that, a mysterious van parks outside his lot and drops off a harmonium before leaving without even saying a word.

I interpret this as a sort of deus ex machina, strangely placed in the beginning of the film instead of the end, like most movies. The reason why I believe this is that Paul Thomas Anderson stated in an interview with Charlie Rose that the film is about “finding your music”, or learning to become in tune with the rest of the world. The harmonium is an apt metaphor for that. We’ll discuss the theme of “finding your music” a little later…

After that, Barry doesn’t pick up the harmonium and discovers that a car is parking at the lot outside his factory. This is when he meets Lena, who mentions later on in the film that she only parked her car there to be able to meet Barry after seeing his picture. They have an awkward exchange before she leaves, but there’s something else that’s odd about the scene. The camera lens, strangely enough, hasn’t been modified for sunlight. An intense lens-flare (Not one of those fake CG’d ones you see in JJ Abrams movies, a legit lens-flare) almost engulfs the frame. It’s almost as if he’s being scrutinized by the light, closely as it threatens to blind him. This is very reminiscent of his emotional fear of connecting with other people after his sisters have constantly berated him as a child, explaining why he prefers to be alone, or in darkness, in the context of the metaphor.

Finally, he picks up the harmonium and tries playing it. It brings him a sense of wonder and joy as he fiddles around with it, as evidenced by the Jon Brion score settling in. This coincides with Anderson’s statement that it’s about “finding your music”. The second he finds the harmonium is the first time the music literally comes in. The score, at first, is pleasant and simple. Then, his assisstant (Luis Guzman, a frequent player in Anderson’s films) enters the garage. When he meets up with Barry, a strange, eerie sound effect interrupts the otherwise pleasant song in the background. It sounds almost like a ghost wailing, like it’s some threatening, otherworldly presence that instills fear into Barry. Funny how this sound pops up when he starts talking to someone after finding the harmonium. It’s like an audio indicator of his fear for socializing.

Another prime example of the audiovisual filmmaking is the use of colors. Just take a look at this screenshot…

What kind of grocery store do you know that stacks all their products in a color-coded order? It’s most likely a visual metaphor for his mental state, which is disharmonized and stores every thought, emotion, and memory into compartments in order to function in society. However, he’s unable to truly empathize or connect with society because of his compartmentalization of his feelings.

Now, take a look at these various screenshots…

Notice the significance of the colors red, white, and blue. No, they have nothing to do with the American flag (Though you could interpret it as some sort of comment about the American Dream, if you’re so inclined). However–and believe me guys, because this symbolism isn’t hard to figure out–, the colors do tend to be in tune with his emotional states and needs.

Barry, throughout the entire film, wears a blue suit all the time. Blue, of course, is a color most associated with deep depression. Then, of course, there’s white. Not just when it comes to the color of the walls of almost every building surrounding him, but also when you notice the lens flares overtaking the shots every now and then. White seems to be this malevolent force that is threatening to engulf Barry. This could easily be seen as either the harassment of his seven sisters or of society. Take your pick; any of them are right. Then, there’s red, the color that you always see Lena wearing, the only person that brings him happiness.

This three-color dichotomy can be best expressed in this shot…

Which transitions to this shot…

Barry, still drenched in sadness, sees a sign of happiness in his horizon. Rather than running away from it, he decides to chase after it, thus pitting him in direct conflict with the abstract and concrete forces that oppress him.

So even the use of color is an important factor in the immersion of Barry’s mental state. However, the greatest example of the audiovisual stream-of-consciousness filmmaking in Punch-Drunk Love is actually in any of the scenes in which Barry is working. While I couldn’t find a clip of this as an example, I did find a track from the soundtrack that plays during one of these scenes…

Imagine this track playing during an otherwise traditional scene in which Barry is switching around from clients to callers. Of course, it creates a nervousness that matches Barry’s, but so what? Many movies do that. What’s so different here? Well, reader, unlike most scores, this one, much like the lens flares, threatens to overtake the scene. Sometimes, it makes certain dialogues inaudible.

Not only that, but the score itself sounds incredibly manic, abstract, and offbeat. It’s like the audio equivalent of a Picasso painting: Everything looks messy and all-over-the-map, but you can tell that that messiness has a point. Then, there’s the sound-design, in which the forklifts and telephones in the background are strangely amplified. All of these noises combined create a deeply nervous anxiety that feels antsy and tense whenever they’re played.

And what’s interesting to note is that this motif actually changes and evolves as the film progresses and Barry learns to free himself from his mental cage. Compare the scene I described and the audio track I played with this scene in which Barry argues with the Mattress Man, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. (Warning: This clip contains the strongest language out of all of them)…

Now, the audio is still nervous and antsy, but something’s different about it. It isn’t as out-of-tempo or disjointed as it was previously. Rather, it feels more focused this time around, more on-beat. This coincides with, of course, the mental state of Barry at the moment. While he’s still intense as he’s arguing with Hoffman, he’s learned to channel his emotions and stand up against his enemy. Remember that statement Paul Thomas Anderson said in that Charlie Rose interview when he said the film was about “finding your music”? Never has the metaphor been more apt.

All of these elements of lighting, set-design, color, and sound all converge to make one of the most formally daring audiovisual experiences in all of film. The only other films I could think of that employ this filmmaking style just as wonderfully is the stream-of-consciousness narratives of Federico Fellini’s vividly personal 8 1/2 and Terrence Malick’s magnum opus The Tree of Life. But even then, those films employ those surreal, abstract techniques into a surrealist, abstract narrative. And with the exception of the deus ex machina intro, Punch-Drunk Love isn’t really all too abstract or surreal in the narrative department, which is actually very simple and grounded in reality.

Because of this, I think that Punch-Drunk Love‘s stream-of-consciousness filmmaking transcends being just a “style”, and more of a “lens”. We see everything through Barry’s eyes and subconscious in all its messy, unadultered glory. And because of that, it’s one of the most profoundly intimate character studies I’ve ever experienced. A deeply moving, sympathetic portrait of a man who learns to find his music. It’s a film that fills me with a deep sense of joy and a renewed appreciation for it with each subsequent viewing. The “best” Anderson film? You can argue for yourself which that is. But for me, this is his most accomplished, and my very favorite of his widely varied filmography. So, here we go…

Punch-Drunk Love may have won the Best Director award at Cannes, but it wasn’t a big box-office success, unsurprisingly, raking in just over $24 million for a film with a $25 million budget. Plus, while the film had many supporters, most critics were more interested with Anderson’s heavier material than they were this Adam Sandler vehicle. But boy did he deliver, with what most people consider to be his masterpiece. Next time, we’ll get crazy with Daniel Day-Lewis in my analysis of Paul-Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.

That is all. If you liked this article and would like to read more, you can do so by clicking the following links: CinEffect on BlogSpot, CinEffect on Tumblr, my own personal tumblr, and my Twitter account @CGRunyon where you can follow me for more reviews, articles, and other random thoughts about what I like. Also be sure to follow my two friends who help out with CinEffect with their own reviews or podcast cohosting sessions: @TBBucs20 & @ThatGuyBrady.

See ya next time! Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to drink a milkshake. Bye!

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