Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002) is a little bit like falling in love for the first time. It’s exciting yet nerve-racking, awkward yet completely natural, wonderful yet so vulnerable. It’s a film that doesn’t seem to make sense but neither does falling in love. That’s why I fell hard for Punch-Drunk Love.
The film follows Barry Egan (Adam Sandler), an anxious man with anger management issues. Shy and awkward, he is constantly taunted by his brood of seven sisters. After loosely being set up with his sister’s coworker, Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), the two begin an unlikely romance.
Punch-Drunk Love unfolds almost like a thriller. Barry’s nervousness is immediately noticeable and transfers off screen. Although I was stunned at his gawkiness, there was something endearing about him as well. The familiarity of his awkwardness, not just in everyday life but also in love, is something relatable. We’ve all been in those awkward situations that never go as planned, though Barry seems to live in one permanently. He becomes an antihero of sorts, the underdog that you want to succeed. His anxiousness is what causes tension in the film, propelling the story forward. He acts like an unpredictable child, either shutting down from embarrassment or in a full on rage minutes later.
On the other hand Lena is Barry’s antithesis, the brazen outspoken voice acting out her intentions. Whilst Barry shies away from the fact that he likes Lena, she comes straight out and asks him to dinner. On the date she even confesses to having seen a picture of him and wanting to meet him. She enacts our deepest thoughts, the ones everybody has but convinces themselves that it’s too weird to mention outside of their own head. Where Barry represents the terror and doubt that comes with dating, Lena acts as the confident and daring one. Her no holds barred attitude is a dreamlike version of fantasies that play out in our heads. She represents how we wish we could act when entering a relationship, however it is Barry who is more often personified.
The film itself is a merging of the reality and fantasy of falling in love. This duality of what we want to be like and how we actually are plays a key role and is ever present in the film’s visuals and music. Jon Brion’s score keeps you on edge throughout the film, rarely taking a break. In moments of anxiety, jarring out of place notes define the tension, moving to sweet melodies that remain a little awkward in the best possible way. The music is haphazard yet lovely, another ode to Barry and Lena’s beautiful romance.
Visually the film is dreamy, a palate of blues and reds set against a backdrop of white. Anderson incorporates artworks from Jeremy Blake to tie scenes together and create an even higher emotional state. The cinematography is so stylised that it doesn’t quite resemble real life. Rather it is somewhere between a harsh reality and a beautiful dream, once again referencing the reality/fantasy of falling in love.
Anderson has said that Barry Egan is somewhat autobiographical, making Punch-Drunk Love one of his most personal films. Sandler’s idiosyncrasies define how fragile Barry is, his vulnerabilities laid bare to the audience. There is almost a strange pride about Barry’s weirdness that the film promotes. Rather than hiding who you really are, especially in those crucial early stages of romance, Barry bares all whether he wants to or not. It’s a lesson in being true to who you are and Anderson’s ode to his idealistic fantasy world. One scene that embodies this perfectly is when Barry is in the supermarket, after he decides to go after Lena. He breaks out in an impromptu happy dance and this defines the film for me. Barry is finally at a place of happiness that he doesn’t care what he does and who sees him do it. Those little moments that no one witnesses, that sum up exactly how you are feeling and make you feel like the biggest dork in the world. Though hopefully a dork that someone could one day love.
Punch-Drunk Love snuck up on me, in the way that one day you realise you are in love with your best friend and how did you never notice before. Having relegated it to just another Adam Sandler comedy upon release, it wasn’t until years later that I stumbled across it late one night on TV. To be honest I didn’t care for it much. I was confused at seeing Adam Sandler in such a dark role and it put me on edge. Though in some sort of car crash mentality I couldn’t stop watching. Barry’s desperation and awkwardness was something I could relate to. I felt like I was watching myself on screen. I was completely engrossed. By the end credits I had fallen in love with this odd little film. What had initially turned me off soon became the charm that won me over.
It’s rare to find a film that not only sparks an emotional response but also speaks to you as if it was made with only you in mind. Anderson has achieved this somehow; creating a highly personal film that is also wide reaching. I would place it amongst the most romantic films ever made, for what is more beautiful than naked truths when it comes to love. It leaves you with a feeling of giddiness, suggesting that romance isn’t quite dead. A truly romantic film in an old fashioned sense, Punch-Drunk Love is a perfect-imperfect love story.