Punch Drunk Love – Paul Thomas Anderson and the Rom-Com. (Film Review)

Seeing as I was so impressed with The Master, I thought I’d check out all the other Paul Thomas Anderson (or PTA as I see he’s being called around the traps) films this week and be the last person to get on board with a fantastic contemporary director.

I just watched Punch Drunk Love, the now ten-year old Paul Thomas Anderson rescue vehicle for Adam Sandler. Apparently Magnolia was so long Anderson promised to make a shorter film this time (PDL is 90 minutes) as well as use Adam Sandler again. I can see why he wanted to do that. Sandler is great in this film and it’s not often I get to say that. All the reviews and such that I have read around praise his performance here. I call it a rescue vehicle because Sandler is saved from that horrible usually-bad-rarely-good comedy thing he does, and shown to be a wonderfully charismatic actor. He’s great as the slightly off-kilter Barry Egan, owner of a small company that sells and mass produces toilet products. Of course.

Barry leads a life that frustrates him. In basic psychology (something I believe Anderson must be well acquainted with as I see it in his films) the way you overcome your poor behaviour habits is to have something you want more that is at stake. This leverage forces you to change yourself.  In other words, you find something you want more than the pain you are experiencing each day. Barry can’s escape his treadmill of a life, work, home, and his manipulative emotionally abusive sisters who are casually cruel with him. There are a lot of them  – seven to make his life miserable. We meet Barry the day this leverage presents itself. Alone at dawn at work, Barry witnesses a terrible car accident, then sees a harmonium placed on the edge of the road and almost immediately meets Lena Leonard (Emily Watson who is also fantastic in this) who asks him to pass her car over to the garage next door for her. After these three events, Barry will gain the leverage needed to change his life.

There are so many things I liked about this film.  The sheer intelligence of it is marvellous. Anderson can really extract great performances. But I liked the way it was shot. Scene after beautiful scene took my breath away from the hallucinogenic correspondence between the phone-sex worker and her manipulative boss through to the first kiss in Hawaii scene that graces the cover of all the DVD’s.  Despite the heaviness of Barry’s problems, the film is light. Barry is able to channel his violent outbursts and use his new-found love to give it a home. The woman who wants him understands him, and Watson’s faint expressions of mood as they flash across her face convey this perfectly. She’s not afraid of him. And it seems Barry has been so afraid of himself.


The pitiful loneliness of the phone sex scene is masterful in its minimalism, the mental anguish as Barry enters, leaves, re-enters, re-leaves, re-enters his sisters house. Doors and corridors are important here. I was reminded time and again of Bressons Pickpocket, with the transitional space of doors and corridors being used over and over. There are some lovely scenes of Barry running… running and running… for no reason, for good reason, because he is lost, because he is found, because he will soon be found. If only he can get there. If only he can choose the right door, and get through the door when it opens to him.

Something must be said of Jon Brion’s incredible score. It keeps pace with Sandler so well… it is the highlight of the incredible scene at work when Barry’s sister turns up with Lena and kerfuffles Barry into a withdrawal from desire that Lena tactfully observes. The use of the Harmonium is hypnotic.  I love that Barry found it on the morning his life changed, and it is the sound of the Harmonium that will impact Barry, not the object of the instrument. I have read that Anderson and Brion worked close together on the score, Brion watching Anderson closely for the way sound would affect him. This is immediately recognisable in the film.  I felt myself responding, Anderson’s tactile film a mould in his hand as he delivers his message to me. It was a joy to be a witness to such a lovely potent collaboration.

It’s the first of the “other” Anderson films I have to watch this week, and I am by no means disappointed. This film is better than everyone says and better than I expected it to be. Looks like I’m joining the very long que of hard-core Anderson fans.