Drama Series: Punch-Drunk Love

Editor’s Note: Welcome to the limited Drama Series, in which our writers will discuss their favorite dramatic performances from comedic actors. Today, we are discussing Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love (2002).

Written By: François-Noël Vannasse

Our movie begins, as most stories should, with a shot of our hero, played here with great aplomb by a young Adam Sandler. We find him on the phone with a representative for a promotional Healthy Choice/American Airlines frequent flyer miles rewards program trying to determine if the absurd loophole he has discovered is in fact legitimate. This much of director Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliant and beautiful attempt at a romantic comedy is based in fact on the true story of David “The Pudding Guy” Phillips who became famous in 1999 for exploiting the system in a similar manner to Sandler’s character, Barry Egan. He steps outside, thermos in hand, and walks to the edge of the street perhaps to watch the sunrise. Instead, he is greeted with a horrific car accident as an SUV flips end over end, inexplicably followed by the dumping of a harmonium by a passing taxi cab directly in front of him. Curious, but afraid, Barry returns to his desk where he phones a customer.

Back outside and sipping from his thermos, Barry is taken aback as a small compact car enters the parking lot. Bathed in light a beautiful woman in a red dress approaches Barry. He fidgets uncomfortably and vacillates as she asks him whether or not she can leave her car in his care until the mechanic opens. He agrees. “There’s a piano in the street” she says, and walks away. Once she clears the corner, Barry ducks back into his warehouse and struggles to compose himself as he seems to suffer through some sort of panic attack. Making sure the coast is clear he casually walks to the small piano only to grab it and sprint back into his office.

This is our introduction to the main character of Punch-Drunk Love (2002). We learn so little about him throughout the movie that it has even led to the absurd “theory” that he might be a fallen and powerless Superman. What we do learn about him in the opening moments is that he is rather meek, awkward, and nervous, but most importantly, that he is trying very hard. He is not a man at peace with himself or the world. Every moment appears to be a struggle for Barry. We get a hint that there’s a bit more to him than meets the eye when he absconds with the harmonium.

In his office Barry plays with the small piano as the music swells. There’s a strange look on his face, something between curiosity and happiness, as he tickles the ivories in the gloom. This moment, like every moment this morning, is interrupted rudely. This time by Lance (Luis Guzmán) rolling open the warehouse doors which loudly exposes Barry to the harsh sunlight. “What’s with the suit?” he asks, apparently curious about Barry’s bright blue wardrobe. “I don’t know.” responds Barry, informing Lance that he only recently purchased the suit and thought it would be nice to dress up for work. That suit is the only item of clothing he wears for the entirety of the film which makes the apparent fact that it’s atypical attire for him all the more strange. Confronted about the Harmonium on his desk Barry begins to back away slowly while stammering lame answers only to be interrupted by the arrival of the rest of the employees who start their job as manufacturers and wholesale distributors of novelty plumbing supplies. The first ten minutes of Punch-Drunk Love are over and the opening credits, a series of hallucinogenic primary watercolor swirls, roll.

This is one of my favorite films but, like many of P.T. Anderson’s films, it’s hardly for everyone. Setting out to make a short romantic comedy following his critically acclaimed three-hour epic Magnolia (1999), Anderson ended up delivering a surreal art-house version of one. The music and visuals in this film set the mood and it is one so attuned to Barry’s psyche that there’s almost no distance between audience and character. Scenes where Barry is otherwise hilariously panicking cannot play for laughs because the music is just as frantic and nervous as he is. The audience feels as uncomfortable as he does. It’s no wonder that the themes, symbols, and meaning of this film have inspired so many interpretations; it’s very difficult to accept something this weird at face value.

Barry Egan has seven sisters who bust his chops in ten different ways. This is not a great week for Barry. It begins with him being inundated at work by a seemingly endless series of phone calls from his various sisters. One of them, Elizabeth, (Mary Lynn Rajskub) visits in person and literally corners her brother trying to set him up on a blind date with one of her coworkers. Arriving at the party, Barry struggles several times to cross the threshold of the door and walks in on his sisters shamelessly gossiping about him. “Remember when Barry used to get all mad?” one of them exclaims as they reminisce about the time Barry smashed the sliding glass door with a hammer after being relentlessly called a “gay boy” as a child. Unable to cope with rage and insecurity at the hectic party, Barry repeats the incident and purposefully breaks the sliding glass doors once again.

Taken aside by his brother-in-law Walter (Robert Smigel), Barry reveals a host of psychological problems and insecurities. “I don’t like myself sometimes.” Sometimes I cry for no reason.” “I don’t know if there is anything wrong because I don’t know how other people are.” It’s a great moment of vulnerability but Barry swears Walter to silence and spends the rest of the movie vehemently denying that any such conversation took place. Ultimately, the story becomes about the healing and redemptive power of love.

The woman who left her car in Barry’s care and Elizabeth’s coworker end up being the same person. Lena Leonard (Emily Watson) is a field consultant for his sister’s company who became interested in Barry after seeing a family photo in her office. After becoming embroiled in a phone-sex blackmail operation, Barry ignores and flees from the problem but is ultimately forced to confront it directly in order to protect Lena. There are many wonderful moments between the two leads, and another great cameo by the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman as the film’s main antagonist, a mattress salesman based in Utah named Dean Trumbell, a man who also runs a phone-sex hotline which blackmails its customers whom he considers “perverts”.

Adam Sandler is no stranger to characters with serious rage issues and often goes from 0 to 60 for comedic effect. Punch-Drunk Love uses this brilliantly as Barry punches walls or destroys bathrooms to cope as he tries to deal with the various internal and external obstacles that present themselves on his quest for love. Although this movie is a romantic comedy it’s as if Anderson couldn’t help himself and ended up making another beautiful but eclectic film. The movie is a slow love story about Barry coming out of his shell by stepping way outside his comfort zone. It’s punctuated, however, by acts of violence; from the car accident Barry witnesses in the movie’s opening few minutes, to Barry’s angry outbursts. It’s in those moments that the movie shines. There’s always something dangerous about Sandler’s characters. They possess an inner rage that’s liable to go off. There’s something seething beneath the surface and this is what makes Barry so interesting. 2002 also saw the release of Mr. Deeds in which Adam Sandler plays an unbelievably nice guy who the media distorts into a drug, sex, and rage fueled maniac. It certainly plays on Sandler’s career so far of playing idiot louts with a heart of gold like Billy Madison (1995), Happy Gilmore (1996), or The Wedding Singer (1998). The distillation of all of these is Eight Crazy Nights (2002) in which Sandler voices an orphan who has become a violent, useless, drunk. Rekindling a relationship with a woman from his childhood and the ability to devote his energies to helping others fixes him by the movie’s end. The concept even led to self-parody with the likes of Anger Management (2003) and the remake of The Longest Yard (2005). It’s through Anderson’s lens that Sandler’s particular brand transcended its frat boy trappings and became thematically harmonious with the rest of the picture.

Barry and Lena return from a romantic getaway but are ambushed outside Barry’s parking garage. Dispatching the assailants with a cold, righteous, fury, Barry escorts Lena to the hospital where she is treated for her head wound. Overcome with guilt, Barry uses his trademark slow backing away to escape behind the privacy curtain. He gets nowhere confronting the blackmailers over the phone and instead rushes directly to D&D Mattresses in Utah all the while with receiver and disconnected cord in hand. His righteous victory against the blackmailing brothers and his final showdown speech with Dean the Mattress Man seems to indicate that love truly does conquer all which is something the script acknowledges: “I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine.” Before this, his outbursts were purely destructive but Lena’s appearance in his life seems to have tempered his rage and allowed him to focus it constructively.

Having abandoned Lena at the hospital, Barry returns to her apartment and begs her to let him redeem the airline mileage of the 3000 dollars of pudding he’s purchased so he can follow her anywhere and stay by her side. It’s a common romantic promise but the idiosyncratic nature of this one makes it ring especially true. The film doesn’t play any of its wacky antics for laughs, and the awkward quiet moments where Barry is called out for his behavior are almost painfully real. It’s the moments between Lena and Barry that are taken seriously by this movie. The romantic music swells, the camera frames them lovingly, and they stare into each other’s eyes. Anderson even spends his iris shot on the two of them holding hands. Barry’s chemistry with Lena is very nearly absurd but it’s enough for them to seem to enjoy one another’s company that the film doesn’t exactly dwell on it. They love each other and that’s that. For both of them it was apparently love at first sight, but for Barry it rocked his world. He managed to hold onto this one positive thing against all the odds in what must have been the craziest few days of his life. It turned his life upside down, he was punch-drunk, but it also made him better. When Barry found the harmonium it was torn and he fixed it with duct tape. There’s hardly a better metaphor than that little piano which is in perfect working order, and more importantly in harmony with the film’s musical score for the first time, in the movie’s final scene with Barry and Lena enjoying it together; Lena putting her arms around Barry as he plays the harmonium inside his warehouse. “So here we go” she says, as the end credits begin and together Barry seems to have found peace and harmony at last.

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