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.
Barry Egan says this to a man (and an actor) much more powerful than he is, but you believe him. His eyes have hardened with primordial power. The nuclear reactor behind them has become elemental and everlasting. How has this happened to an obsessive toilet maintenance supplies salesman, a gawky tin man with seven emotionally abusive sisters, a dandruff problem, occasional fits of psychopathic rage, and a past life as someone called Adam Sandler?
They say that behind every great man is a great woman. Punch-Drunk Love seems to offer this revision – that behind every man there is a woman who believes him to be great. Lena Leonard (Emily Watson) looks at Barry and sees a man of eternal passion, a powerful hero (or villain: she doesn’t seem to care) held captive in a tiny body. She needs that person to be real. Actual greatness never comes into it.
Sandler and Watson walk a peculiar path, like they’ve never been left alone long enough to tell themselves who they really are. Paul Thomas Anderson writing and directing seems to want to tell them how they should hope to be. I genuinely didn’t know where he was headed, writing this romance without the propriety of a social conscience. I’m reminded of when you expect Hepburn in John Huston’s The African Queen to look at Humphrey Bogart, that unshaven drunkard fitted loosely into overalls and greasepaint and malcontent, and bible-thump him right out of continental Africa. And instead she says, eyes glittering, “You’re the bravest man that ever lived.” Punch-Drunk Love stars Sandler, the cheapest suit in the romantic comedy prop bin. If it has only one accomplishment, it’s that afterwards I can picture Sandler in Bogie’s roles. Some movies try to get pretty people to seem, for as long as possible, that they won’t end up together. For P.T. Anderson (as for Huston), the characters are so incompatible with our idea of greatness that once they achieve it, you can never imagine them apart again.
Barry begins in a dark place, scarred by expectations (including ours). Cinematographer Roger Elswit takes his time with Barry at a lonely desk in a rented garage as he talks over the phone about food coupons, in a bright blue suit and matching tie. We follow Barry, as Elswit so frequently savors long shots, to where he sells toilet plungers (following a run-in with a wayward harmonium, which seems to peek around corners at him and move on its own). Luis Guzman asks him, “Why are you wearing a suit?” Our first impression topples. He’s not the professional we wondered how on earth he could be: he’s the Adam Sandler we knew he really was. In Punch-Drunk Love, Sandler is not a person Barry ever stops being. Anderson doesn’t want to undo Happy Gilmore: he wants to elevate it.
He takes Lena to a restaurant. They laugh at jokes no one else would find funny. Then Lena makes the mistake of mentioning the time he smashed a sliding door with a hammer for no reason, after which he trashes the restaurant bathroom. They get thrown out, his fists bleeding. She doesn’t seem to mind. Then he follows her to Hawaii even though he can’t redeem his pudding cups for frequent flyer miles (coupon-cutting carries no small significance in the film, even though Barry just has to buy a ticket anyway).
Then he’s on top of her in her hotel bedroom and he says, “I’m looking at your face and I just wanna smash it … I just wanna fuckin’ smash it with a sledgehammer and squeeze it, you’re so pretty.” You can’t understand Punch-Drunk Love until you realize that it’s the same hammer he once used to break windows.
He also used it to break that clown’s nose in Happy Gilmore. That bottled up potential energy that eats a hole in Barry Egan was always in Sandler too. Sandler films contain a perverse sweetness, a nice guy driven to animalistic rage by those who walk all over him. There was always something more, something mythic in him, and alluring: a gentle everyman, not too smart and not too strong, with a kind of beaten sincerity that we wish could live in the world without laughing at itself for self-defense or lashing out in distressed, ineffective retaliation. We always saw it. Only now do we realize it was Barry Egan he was hiding behind an outsider’s violent desperation. He’s the first of Sandler’s characters to be made entirely of the sincerity of which his roles are usually only a piece. This performance is the poem he had inside him, a depth of emotion that turns his gastrointestinal comedic canon into literature. He apparently had no taste for it – he would not reprise the role of a good actor again.
We have him as Barry Egan for a mere 95 minutes of his career. But Anderson knows how to obsess over time. Certain events take as long as they really take, without cuts or reassertions of the space. One particular elongated moment waiting for a prostitute to call him back, is excruciating. This is recalled later when he confronts the porn king of the phone sex service that scams him (Philip Seymour Hoffman) because he called in and didn't really know what to say. He could have been any level of trash and gotten off easy: he's in trouble because he accidentally revealed that he's a nice guy. In classic Anderson fashion their epic battle is really just that line I started with. Other exchanges are fluid and nauseating in a way that prompts motion sickness. Composer Jon Brion uses a harmonium, which exists in-film, pounding it like a tribal drum – conversationally normal situations become ragged heart murmurs of tension and uncertainty. Egan, like a plastic bag spinning in the conversation’s wind, drifts from phone to sister to client to girlfriend to phone. It’s oppressive, even claustrophobic, with only hurtful words and withering sounds.
City noise and ragged harmonium cackles and thrumming beats must be the whirlwind in Barry’s head as people climb into him, expecting something of him, calling him a freak, asking him for favors. His sisters emasculate him with nicety, just as the Sandler characters have always thwarted nicety with shows of violence. Hitchcock defined suspense as a bomb that the audience knows is there but which the characters cannot see: Barry’s persona is ticking down for feature-length. We know what he has inside him. Even in proportion to his outward compliance we sense his love-starved darkness brewing down deep in those puppy dog eyes until it becomes irrepressible. He is like if Dennis Hopper’s character in Blue Velvet was played by Jimmy Stewart.
He lives in a suspicious and indecipherable world. Nothing makes sense to him as others see it. There’s a point when he and Lena are walking the streets, by trash bins, through smog and between honking cars. But the pounding has stopped, and a soft violin is playing. Such a weight has been lifted from our senses that they could be anywhere: their relief would still be ours too. With Sandler’s childlike inability to understand how things work, Anderson has mined the romantic comedy beyond its images. Against a colorless night and a long, wide shot of two weirdos walking alone through sewer steam, you can feel the moment that it takes to love a whole life long.
At the core of the Sandler character is an unwillingness to be stepped on, a rebellious energy merely playacting as perverted. His films have never taken notice of him, but it seems like we’ve been doing it all along. And Anderson, a Sandler fan first, saw an old-timey romance at the center of a geek’s just rage at a society in which he doesn’t fit. Watson’s burnished eyes tell the whole story. Like her, honest strength is what we always admired in the Sandler character. We disguised his pain with our laughter. In Punch-Drunk Love, we’re finally free to cry.
Image is a screenshot from the film.