I am in sort of a conundrum with Punch Drunk Love. Here is a movie that I dearly loved, a movie I had to see three times before I really began to appreciate it, and yet it stars an actor that generally has the same effect on me as an ice cream headache. I’ve never found a reason to like Adam Sandler. His brand of comedy has a tone of anger and malevolence that makes me uncomfortable. His characters are always self-involved, angry malcontents who get on my nerves. Even on ‘Saturday Night Live’, there was something creepy about his gallery of characters that I never found funny.
The conundrum with Sandler comes from the fact that, in ‘Punch Drunk Love’, he has taken his usual brand of comedy and turned it into something that is just this side of brilliant. At the direction of Paul Thomas Anderson, he has found an outlet and produced the finest performance of his career.
He plays Barry Egan, a put-upon novelty plunger salesman who lives in a world populated by people who treat him like a punching bag. He speaks quietly for the most part, hardly moving his lips when he talks. His voice is often just a quiet, low-volume sound as if he is afraid that someone might hear him. He is the brother of seven sisters who tease him mercilessly, calling him “Gay Boy” and always asking for details about an event long ago when he smashed a pane of glass with a hammer. He pretends not to remember. Nearly everyone around him is selfish and cruel. There’s a mean-streak in his world that threatens to crush him.
Barry’s defense is that he keeps to himself. Stuffed into his mind is an arrangement of ideas that no one on the outside world could possibly understand. He is really a sweetheart, a good guy who is loyal to those few to love him and only tolerable of those who don’t . . . up to a point. Buried under this self-conscious exterior lies a volcano of rage that bubbles up to the surface when he is pushed too far. At one moment, he is on a date and gets a call from his nagging sister, then politely excuses himself and destroys the men’s room.
Barry has few pleasures in life. He pleases himself by buying pudding in order to work a loophole in an American Airlines contest that will get win him a million frequent flier miles. The catch: He doesn’t travel, nor does he have any desire to. Just finding a way around the contest makes him happy.
His world turns upside down by two events that happen almost at the same time. First, he meets Lena (Emily Watson) a sweet, wide-eyed girl who sees right through Barry’s defenses and endears herself to his oddball charm. She likes him right away and the feeling is mutual. The second event comes one night when he gets lonely and calls a phone sex number just to have someone to talk to. It turns out to be a scam and Barry ends up the target of three blond thugs who beat him up when he cancels the credit card. These two events eventually culminate into a development we don’t expect. Something in his love for Lena opens him up and brings that pent-up rage to a condition that isn’t quite manageable but is, at least, not pinned down.
As I revisited Punch Drunk Love for a second and then a third time, I tried to get to the bottom of why Barry is so fascinating. He reminds me, in a way, of Chaplin’s Little Tramp or Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton’s “Stone Face”. They all seem to stand outside of the normal span of the selfish world that surrounds them. They are good at heart but they have no use for joining those around them at the trough of selfishness and cruelty. Barry’s world is small. He has a boring haircut, wears the same blue suit all the time (just like Chaplin or Lloyd or Groucho or Laurel and Hardy) and relegates himself to those few joys in life that make him happy. There’s a very brief moment in the movie of pure joy, as he walks up and down the aisles of a grocery store dancing like Chaplin and wearing an infectious smile.
What is so amazing to me is that I didn’t expect this kind of brilliant to come from Adam Sandler. I avoid his movies generally – though I have seen a few – because the usual characters annoy me. Yet, here he finds one that works for him. He reveals brilliant comic notes, and the kind of precision timing that great comedy is made of.
What makes this story work is that the movie is seen at an odd angle. Everything in Punch Drunk Love is punched up just a notch higher and more manic than real life. That gives the movie an abstract feel and allows us to forgive it for sometimes seeming cold and cruel. The fact that the movie is seen through Barry’s eyes is probably the reason why. Director Paul Thomas Anderson knows how to move oddball characters through caverns of dark comedy. This is the man who made Boogie Nights, Magnolia and There Will Be Blood. He focuses on people who are just a little off the cuff, who seem just a little too angular to fit into this world. Here he manages to take an actor with seemingly limited appeal and open him up to reveal the stuff of comic genius.