Punch-Drunk Love review by The Grim Ringler

Never in a million years did I expect to like an Adam Sandler film. I mean, ya never know right, and as much as I like to try to keep an open mind about movies, well, I saw Happy Gilmore and, well, it bit. Sandler and his man-child shtick is old, though sadly, people still pay for it. For some reason though director Paul Thomas Anderson saw something in Sandler and decided he was his man and cast him as Barry, his lovelorn lead in Punch-Drunk. At the time I was livid, I mean, how could this buffoon ever do justice to a film by P.T.A.? So I went into Punch-Drunk with a grudge and ready to hate this film and its star, ready to watch what could have been a great film fall to the ranks of crap and piss jokes. Sometimes it aint so bad being wrong.

Punch-Drunk Love follows Barry, a man on the edge of middle age and walled into an emotional prison by an overbearing brood of sisters and an inability to display emotions in a healthy way. He has his own business, is making some money, is attractive, but hes alone and miserable. But on the day we find Barry his life is about to change. In a suit for the first time in his life, Barry witnesses an almost supernatural and horrific car crash and immediately afterwards sees a taxi-van pull to the curb near his business and unload what looks like a small piano (we find later that its called a harmonium) before speeding away. And within a matter of moments Barrys life has changed forever. Not long afterwards a woman arrives to have her car worked on at the shop next to Barrys and, since they are not open yet, entrusts the keys to Barry and smiling, tells him maybe shell see him later. And all of this happens in a matter of minutes. Time seemingly frozen all of a sudden. As she walks away Barry cant help but stare, skulking back into the shadows of his store to watch her walk away, wanting her secretly but unable to imagine getting her. As the day progresses we see the world Barry lives in, a world where his sisters domineer him to the point of madness, each one calling him several times each day to nit-pick, badger, or just to complain about the rest of the sisters. And during each call Barry becomes their little brother, shrinking, never speaking up to them, never getting angry with them, letting them say what they have to say so he can get back to his work. That night we see Barrys other, darker side, as, after being made fun of by his entire clan of sisters, who have found it necessary to bring up past embarrassments he has suffered during a dinner party, Barry kicks out three floor-to-ceiling windows, that brief moment of rage the most emotion we have seen from him as yet. Ashamed, Barry reaches out to a brother-in-law, asking him if he knows any good psychiatrists, even though the brother-in-law is only a dentist. And even then Barry is betrayed as his sister finds out about Barry asking her husband about a shrink and finds it necessary to grill him about it the next day when she arrives with a girl-friend for Barry to meet, who just happens to be the woman from the day before. Unable to really compete with his sister and her manic ranting, Barry shrinks again, unable to even speak to the woman until his sister is gone for a few moments. But it isnt he that pursues her, but she that pursues him, hinting that shed like him to take her out to dinner the next night if hed like, and agreeing, Barry finally has a distant glimmer of hope in his life. And suddenly the movie becomes surreal, a place of magic, as the colors brighten, the music swells, and hope becomes substantive. Alas for our poor Barry it shant be that simple. Barry, in a moment of pure loneliness, had called a phone sex line and in doing so, unwittingly opened the door for a group of con artists to try to blackmail Barry into giving them money (Barry foolishly gives the operator his credit card number, street addy, phone number, and even social security number) and as he is getting closer to Lena so too are these con artists getting closer to him. So close in fact that several of them pay Barry a visit and kidnap him and force him to give them money from his ATM account. So just as there is finally a chance for Barry to be happy, a chance that he has found someone that seems to accept him and that actually wants him, he must find the courage in himself, the strength in his growing love for Lena, to get free of these con artists before they manage to ruin everything he has suddenly become.

In all honesty, this is one helluva hard movie to review. There is so much happening in it that there is no simple way to forge a path to the main narrative here. It is, at its heart, a re-imagining of the old school romantic films from an earlier era in Hollywood, though twisted and seen through the madhouse mirrors or Barrys and Lenas worlds. In Barry and Lena we have two people so screwed up, so desperately mad that they can only find sanity in one another. The funny thing is, as weird as it is, it is a truly beautiful love story. Barry, as frightened as he is of himself and the world around him, stops at nothing to make sure that Lena and he can be together and that she will never have to deal with the trouble hes created for himself. And its easy to see Barry as violent because he is, but his violence isnt a sign of some need to destroy all that is around him but is more the only way he has to show feelings. Being surrounded by so many dominant women has emotionally boxed him to such a degree that his short outbursts of violence, which manifest themselves in an almost epileptic way, are his only release. The only thing that keeps him sane. And its scary to see his outbursts, the scariest being his attack on a restaurant bathroom after he learns of yet another embarrassing story his sister has regaled Lena with. In the end though it is his love for Lena and the magic he has found in her and in his found harmonium that Barry finds the strength to finally become a person worthy of love and able to give it. And its this quality that actually gives the film its fairy tale feeling that this man must brave himself and vanquish the devils that plague him before he can attain the love that awaits him.

As always the film is jam-packed with a brilliant cast that shines brightest with Sandler who truly shows what he can do in this film. He is still a goofy character but its his inner pain that shines through it all, his tortured loneliness that makes this character a man, a person, and not a cartoon. And as always, Luis Guzman is amazing as Lance, Barrys friend and co-worker, ever the straight man to Barrys madness, and never batting an eye at his boss behavioral tics. In fact, its characters like Lance and Phillip Seymore-Hoffmans Mattress Man Dean Trumbull that give life to this film and that make it something special. They create characters that are not stuck in the background, damned to support the stars, not at all, they are in fact the heart of a film that uses every outside character to reinforce how much Barry and Lena need one another. They may be crazy, but the world is worse! Andersons use of music and color are also as key as the cast in Punch-Drunk as they have been in all his other films as well. The use of the Scopitones, a sort of color test that runs through the film during certain moments, creates a dream-like feeling as you watch them, filling the film with an indefinable warmth and romance that is really hard to put into words. Its as if, as a friend said, we are seeing into Barrys heart, and are seeing what he feels but is unable to give words to. The music too helps to build the feeling of warmth in the film, essentially just an ambient score that never really intrudes into the film until things are getting out of control. Again you are given the sense that this is the music of Barrys heart, the beauty he is unable to give words too.

What makes this film so special though is that it truly is romantic. There is no cheesy set-up and there is nothing false in this. These are two lonely, screwed up people that want badly to find someone and fall in love and by the end of the film are lucky enough to have that chance. These are not perfect people. They are, if nothing else, flaws personified. The most romantic part of the movie even comes as the two of them are in bed together, each telling the other how they want to demolish each other, with as much violence as they can muster, because its the only way they know how to tell the other they love them. Its a surprising and beautiful scene and is as scary as it is romantic.

The disc itself looks and sounds amazing and really is something else if you have a good surround system. The best of the extras is a short film called Blood and Blossoms which features more of the Scopitone art as well as many alternate scenes from the film that show the things we didnt see, among them a more tortured Barry, and an anxious Lena, all set to a beautifully melancholy song by Jon Brion.

This is, if you hadnt gotten the picture, your average Adam Sandler film. And thank god for that. By trusting that he had chosen the right actor, director Paul Thomas Anderson has helped prove to the world, and to Sandler himself that he truly does have a gift for comedic acting, and can even pull off the dramatic nicely as well. In fact, having seen the film twice now, I can honestly say I cant see another actor portraying the Barry as well as Sandler has. One of the few romantic films that has honestly touched me, Punch-Drunk Love will thankfully get its due with the passing of time, slowly finding the audience and appreciation it sorely missed on its initial release. And for me, I can finally say, and proudly, that I know of at least one great Adam Sandler film. Which is no small feat kids.


8 out of 10 Jackasses
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