Punch-drunk Love written and directed by PT Anderson
PT Anderson is one of my favorite directors, so I watched this the first time when it first came out and I didn’t really remember much about it except that it was mildly good so I watched it again on demand. It’s a strange one, with a Charlie-Kaufmanesque tone of tragicomedy/absurdity that is offbeat and awkward. Kaufman’s sensibility and tone is not one I am in sync with (it seems like Kaufman wants you to squirm) and so at first this is off-putting. However, it also has some elements of whimsy/fantasy a la Wes Anderson, which I am much more comfortable with as it seems like Wes wants to include us. I don’t know for sure of course, but it feels like PT Anderson is trying on different voices in his writing/direction with this. Additionally, there is some reference to greek mythology and since the Coen Brothers Oh Brother Where Art Thou came out two years earlier, perhaps that is an influence too.
Spoiler alert: I wanted to make sure I remember this story so I re-tell most of it here.
Adam Sandler is remarkably good and almost selfless in a real role for him. He plays Barry Egan, a business man who sells bathroom supplies and has emotional problems which have severely limited his psychological growth and led to a very stunted, limited life. Emily Watson doesn’t have much to do but she is her radiant self as she plays Barry’s love interest, Lena Leonard. A couple of regular players for PT Anderson are here too: Philip Seymour Hoffman and Luis Guzman.
There is some random seeming symbology and use of myth that I’m not sure about but noticed: Barry is wearing a technicolor blue suit (some beautiful use of color in an abstract way and beautiful cinematography all through) and it is mentioned several times in the script that this is not his usual attire. (perhaps he has donned a suit of armor for his life quest) He has seven sisters who nag, hound and berate him abominably. (the seven sisters or Pleiades in greek mythology were daughters of Atlas, who carried the world on his shoulders and were nursemaids and teachers to the infant Dionysus who was the god of wine, comedy and tragedy) A harmonium is violently dropped off in the street by Barry’s place of business, he thinks it’s a small piano but Watson knows it’s a harmonium and it suddenly becomes very important to them.
Sandler’s character has anger issues usually triggered by his seven sisters who nag, hound and berate him and he likes to wield a hammer to break their windows (useless, destructive and ineffectual) rather than dealing assertively with his sisters and standing up for himself.
Barry is lonely and after asking one of his brothers in law who’s a doctor to refer him to a psychiatrist Barry breaks down crying after telling him he does this sometimes and it’s hard for him to stop. After telling his brother in law not to discuss it with his sisters, one of his sisters asks him if this happened and does he have a crying problem?
Ashamed about needing someone to talk to but still very lonely, he impulsively decides to call a phone sex line for someone to talk to. (Misguided, but an attempt nevertheless to reach outside himself for help to change his life) She of course tries to immediately engage in phone sex but he politely continues to try to just make conversation. The phone sex worker winds up calling him the next day to ask for money and when he politely declines ( an attempt to stand up for himself, Sandler’s character is child-like and very naive yet seems functional in his strange business of selling bathroom supplies) she becomes vicious and begins to threaten and extort him for money, her boss (Hoffman) sending her brothers after him to rob him and beat him up. He is accused of being a pervert by them and must pay for his bad behavior according to them and this is repeated in the script a few times in an effort to shame him but he ultimately overcomes his embarrassment. (Becomes arbiter of his own life)
As Sandler and Watson are falling in love, Sandler decides to follow her to Hawaii when she has to go on a business trip. He has been trying to win flying miles from the Healthy Choice promotion by buying pallets of their pudding but they put him off for six weeks until they can process his order. He freaks out and punches the wall but decides to go to Hawaii after all. (Choosing to let go of an obsession and the need to control to pursue love) He tells Guzman that he’s in charge of the business while he’s gone and that under no circumstances is he to tell his sisters where he went.
When he gets there he realizes he doesn’t know where Watson is staying so he calls his sister (who is a friend and co-worker of Watson’s) from a phone booth to get the information and when she demands to know why first, he screams at her that she shouldn’t treat him that way and that he will kill her if she doesn’t give him the information. (finding strength to overcome obstacles and stand up to his sisters) She backs off and complies. When he’s there with Watson he says, “Wow, it really looks like Hawaii here” with absolutely no irony. They make love in Watson’s room that night telling each other they’d like to chew each others faces off and scoop each others eyes out they are so cute and they clearly have a meeting of the minds and souls. ( being open to real intimacy) Next morning, Sandler sits in bed while Watson phones his sister and pretends she hasn’t seen him and they aren’t together. (Creating an autonomous life)
After the trip to Hawaii as they are returning home Hoffman’s thugs ram his car with Watson in it and she is hurt, (this is a breath-takingly slo-mo scene that is brilliantly edited and he later uses this technique beautifully in Magnolia twice) he gets out of the car and turns all of his anger against all four brothers, beating them to a pulp. (righteous and victorious use of his anger) He leaves Watson at the hospital though to go out to Utah to confront Hoffman at his mattress store. He and Hoffman have a semi-comic showdown in almost wild west fashion where Barry tells Hoffman that he has love in his life and that this has made him so strong as to be unconquerable and gets Hoffman’s character to say “that’s that” and to never try to harm Barry or Lena again. Once Barry returns, Lena has been discharged from the hospital and Barry is bereft. He runs to the office to get the harmonium, then runs with the harmonium to her apartment where he explains the whole story to her and she takes him back after chiding him for leaving her at the hospital and telling him that he cannot do that. He agrees and gathers her up in a hug and kiss of reunion (dealing sensitively with constructive feedback about what’s important).
So, in re-telling this story, I can see that it is a late coming of age story in which Barry confronts himself and life, overcomes personal short-comings and external obstacles to find love and create a life for himself. Strangely, somehow I feel that in spite of my trying to remember this film, I will forget it again and I think it’s because it lacks an emotional connection. On paper, the emotions are there but on screen everything seems muted and distant. Still, it’s a sweet film with good intentions.