By Michael Andreacchio
P.T. Anderson’s 2002 film is a romantic comedy on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Valentine’s Day has come and gone, thank god, and I for one am grateful. I can look past the fact that it’s a made up Hallmark holiday, or even the fact that its origins come from a pervy Roman goat sacrificing ceremony intended to ward off jackals (or something), or that the Christians covered it up by celebrating the martyrdom of two guys named Valentine. What I cannot look past is the abysmally trite romantic-comedies produced like they are coming off a conveyor belt.
So, I figured I’d dig through the film archives to find something unique. In this particular film series, I will attempt to dust off some films which you may have seen, you may have missed, or you may have just not looked at from a particular perspective. Over the next few months, I will review and provide analysis for films which struck me as something special. Each biweekly installment will focus on a different genre film and I will attempt to dissect it to its bare bones.
My hope is that you as the reader will discover some great new films or will sit down to rewatch something from a new perspective. Of course, much like anything, film is subjective. Different strokes for different folks. My personal bias is, of course, on full display in this series.
For this installment, being post-Valentine’s Day we focus on a lesser known romantic-comedy called Punch Drunk Love (2002) by indie darling Paul Thomas Anderson. Sandwiched between two of his critically acclaimed masterpieces (There Will Be Blood, and Magnolia, both comparatively running 2 ½ and 3 hours). Running a scant 95 minutes, Punch Drunk Love is just as ambitious and thought-provoking as his other magna opera films.
Cinema has gotten it wrong for years when it comes to love. Maybe I am talking from a jaded interpretation of my own failed love life, but love is complex. Love is deep, not the shallow interpretation Hollywood constantly tries to fool us with every year around this time. Love has warts and smells funny sometimes. Love can be one of the most rewarding and maddening of human experiences. Love is rich with meaning.
That is exactly what is delivered, a film rich with meaning. Anderson doesn’t just write and direct, he uses visual literacy where the film has its own language. His somber long-take shots where scenes are filled with a fluorescent-hued color pallet suggest a detached awkward approach to contemporary romance. This is an inviting and ominous maelstrom, but one in which the audience can’t help but get sucked into.
He pulls the very best out of the actors he works with, even seasoned or typecasted actors. This film has plenty of them.
Comedic silly man Adam Sandler stars as Barry Egan, the boss of Funger, a novelty plunger operation. Luis Guzman plays his business associate, Lance. Right, I know what you are probably thinking, “I’ve seen this Sandler film before” — the somewhat endearing yet infantile range, from an actor who always follows the narrowest of parameters in all his previous films. While all those things are true to a certain extent, in this film Sandler seems different. Not repackaged. Refined, sharpened to give purpose, liberated from the shackles of formula. He reveals refreshing and unexpected depths as an actor.
Particularly important to Sandler’s character is the dynamic of family hierarchy. Growing up with seven domineering sisters, Egan found it their purpose to torment him every chance they get. Anderson’s expressionist view shares an abstract heritage to Egan’s from his own life in which he grew up with three controlling sisters.
Egan’s character is presented with a certain type of anxiety-riddled loneliness. A gnawing sense of emptiness which he attempts to fill, tragically and oft times hilariously with plenty of missed connections. Noticeably, there is a tension that builds throughout the film, which is unnerving but bubbles over to produce dark comedic value. From this perspective, we see the film as one large character study on this man Barry Egan.
The film opens at Barry’s company warehouse somewhere in the San Fernando Valley. It is dawn, and Barry is the first person to arrive at work. He is having a conversation over the phone with a man named Carter, a sales rep for a pudding company running a promotion which gives away frequent-flyer miles to customers. We get a sense that Barry has stumbled onto some kind of a too good to be true promotion.
Incidentally, Anderson took this narrative from real life. In 1999, California resident David Phillips made national headlines by outsmarting Healthy Choice. He realized that the company’s pudding was drastically underpriced for the frequent-flyer mile mail-in promotion it was offering. For $3,140 in pudding, he got himself a whopping 1,253,000 miles, and thus practically unlimited flights.
Back to Barry, who steps outside with his coffee to get some fresh air, he walks down to the street and looks out at the early-morning traffic. Suddenly and violently a car blows a tire and rolls several times in succession. Meanwhile, a minivan screeches to a halt; in the foreground, a man slides the door open and deposits a harmonium on the curb quickly before speeding away.
In the first two minutes, we get a ton of symbolism and metaphor. Anderson toys with the idea of comfort and chaos. What some people might see as a random car crash I saw as abrupt and chaotic. This theme follows throughout the film — abrupt, and chaotic, tension building to a car wreck; in the literary world, we would call this a type of thesis statement.
The harmonium becomes a symbol of comfort and safety to Barry. When everything around him is crumbling he holds on to it like a security blanket. Why a Harmonium, you might be asking yourself? A harmonium is not your atypical musical instrument, after all. That is precisely Anderson’s point; here is something different, something strange yet fascinating. Like the discovery of a new love, where one might find comfort in exploring new feelings and emotions. To Barry, these feelings are curious and alien.
Punch Drunk Love’s unique score delivers a serious uppercut, Composed by John Bryon, who drops layered tracks and disconnected sounds into a cauldron and stirs. What comes from this unique brew is an almost maddening effect. The score is filled with lots of different ambient and harmonium tones, which go nicely with the chaotic anarchic nature of the film.
Another scene finds Barry alone in his apartment, which looks eerily like an IKEA advertisement; Egan is drawn to a 1-900 phone sex ad. In a stroke of genius, he calls up the phone sex operator and attempts to have a normal conversation with her. What ensues is pure comic gold: Egan asking how she’s doing, what she’s doing, how does she like her job, while she stays in character continually asking if he’s touching himself. Discouraged, he eventually relents in a sad, defeated way.
The scene is darkly lit with ominous undertones. As if Barry has innocently enough stumbled into the seedy underbelly of society. His anxiety and paranoia are on full display as he paces the confines of his apartment. He has his television up loudly, perhaps to conceal what he is up to. The cinematography is important to note in this scene as techniques used in camerawork pop up throughout the film to add tension. While Barry begins this scene, the camera is in a fixed still shot. This suggests that he is still in control. As things begin to spiral, the camera is handheld and shaky, abrupt, and chaotic.
I’d like to take a moment to reflect on the stunning cinematography. Helmed by academy award winning and celebrated cinematographer Robert Elswit (who has worked with Anderson on many projects including There Will Be Blood, and Boogie Nights) he manages to capture Anderson’s vision in a dark, gritty way. He displays a wealth of knowledge of visual storytelling through the dimensions of his lens. It’s truly a pleasure to watch Elswit’s work; it’s art, beauty, and madness, all rolled into one.
The next morning, the story suddenly shifts gears, again abrupt and chaotic. The phone sex operator continually calls Barry harassing him for money. Here the audience is presented with a dilemma and even more tension as the phone calls follow him to work,
Egan is introduced to Lena Leonard, played by Academy Award-nominated actress Emily Watson, who portrays a sweet woman, with a hint of brokenness to her character. Awkwardness ensues as Egan attempts to find his way to a meaningful human connection. Eventually, they do land on the same page and fall in love. However, the phone sex operator is unrelenting and eventually, the tension bubbles over as she sends out her four blond brothers to beat up Barry and take his money.
What we learn through these interactions is that the phone sex operator and the blonde brothers all work for a seedy Mattress store owner Dean Trumbell (played by the late great Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Hoffman, an Academy Award winner in his own right, plays the role to perfection. He’s the bad guy we love to hate.
At this point, Egan opts to leave town. He attempts to parlay his pudding into frequent flyer miles (to no avail – surprise, surprise) Leaving behind his harmonium, he picks up and follows Lena to Hawaii where she has gone on a business trip.
When the harassment leads to Lena being injured, Egan takes matters into his own hands and confronts Trumbell in his mattress store. This is a different Barry Egan than we knew at the beginning of the film. A transformation or rebirth has occurred, and we begin to see confidence and self-reliance. Love has filled the empty void inside of him.
Anderson describes Punch Drunk Love as an “arthouse Adam Sandler film.” But to leave it at that would be short-changing this gem. It’s got surprising weight to its dimensions.
From a filmmaking perspective, Anderson uses every piece of visual storytelling at his disposal. The film’s goal is not to put the audience in Barry Egan’s shoes; it is to put the audience in his mind, which is confused, lost, and at times chaotic. I could talk ad nauseam about the depth of this film, but really if you haven’t seen it for yourself it’s worth the 95 minutes it takes to sit through, and the days afterwards having it hauntingly stick with you.
Without giving too much away, make sure to stick around after the credits because there is a really funny post-credit scene.
Categories: Art & Entertainment