There’s no getting around the fact that Punch Drunk Love is an Adam Sandler film. However, if your normal reaction to that fact is to make for the nearest exit you’ll be missing out on what promises to be one of the year’s most innovative and visually sumptuous films.
Paul Anderson’s first film in three years is a comparatively short and surprisingly restrained affair than what we’ve come to expect from the director of epics like Magnolia and Boogie Nights. It essentially revolves around Barry Egan (Sandler) who leads a humdrum life as a toiletries salesman with a personal life involving phone sex and being bullied by seven overbearing sisters.
After witnessing a car crash and finding a harmonium in the street, he meets Lena (Emily Watson) and a twisted romance of sorts begins, punctuating Barry’s life routine of buying jars of chocolate for air miles and dealing with bouts of uncontrollable, violent rage. This isn’t the usual multiplex ‘rom-com’, in fact not only does it resist summarising it completely defies pigeonholing into any genre.
Sandler’s acting really is the pivot of the film. Such an emotionally complex character as Barry, who swings between bouts of crying and violent toilet smashing, window breaking rage, is handled with a subtlety not normally associated with the star of Big Daddy and Little Nicky.
The opening scene, set in a dimly lit warehouse, is bathed in hues of grey with the focus deliberately set off centre leaving huge expanses of empty space on the screen. It’s at once perplexing and disorientating to the audience, and is a technique that occurs throughout.
In fact the first 45 minutes or so seem to play out like some Dadaist nightmare with seemingly endless scenes, repetitive minimalist dialogue and massive jolts of sound deliberately designed to make the viewer jump. These collide with bizarre imagery – and the relationships are as surreal as they are sinister. The dialogue between characters close to each other even borders on the aggressive. Barry’s sisters talk in lines of nothing but contempt, further fuelling his internalised anger, whilst the conversation between Barry and Lena during sex consists of disturbing sweet nothings like “I want to smash your face in with a sledgehammer”.
The first time it actually starts to feel like a film is when a band of blonde brothers, led by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, pursue Barry for money – but this narrative strand of the film is the most straightforward and consequently the least satisfying, seeming to exist just to provide an opportunity for an extended Hoffman cameo and to provide at least some plot and normality for the casual film fan, contrasting with the rather disconnected and ethereal sequence of events that have hitherto unfolded. (This said however, the final showdown between Hoffman and Sandler is worth the admission price alone.)
Anderson seems to have aimed for an art house film with Punch Drunk Love. His visual style and use of imagery that lend the film its bizarre other-worldly feel. Egan’s rage and continuous punching leads to the word ‘Love’ being carved into his knuckles, and the presence of the harmonium in the foreground seems to be some sly joke on Anderson’s part.
In summary, there is no summary. It is likely to infuriate as many as it will delight. Sandler may lose as many fans as he makes with this movie, but to my mind it’s good to know that there are still American directors willing to take a risk, and anybody who can put a new slant on a genre as hackneyed as Romantic Comedy and bring out a serious actor in Adam Sandler must be doing something right.