Saturday, July 17, 2004

Punch-Drunk Love
Review by Sombrero Grande

What do decorative plungers, a small piano, a hammer thrown through a glass door, pudding, frequent flyer miles and phone sex have in common? They’re all in Love--Punch-Drunk Love, that is.

Some would say that Punch-Drunk Love is a "weird" movie, but I think they’re missing the mark. Though the film is peppered with some highly surreal moments, I believe there’s very little that can’t be sorted out through discussion after the film. A movie giving the audience something to think about, work out and interpret afterwards is never a bad thing.

Punch-Drunk Love is a far cry from any other film Adam Sandler has ever been in. Even though Sandler’s character sounds as though he could be at home in any of his usual style of films (a mentally off-kilter but essentially kind man with an explosive temper), Barry Egan is a far cry from Happy Gilmore. It’s nice to see Sandler broadening his horizons with a more subdued and controlled-feeling performance than I’d previously seen him do.

Barry is a victim. Even though he owns his own small business, he’s not really in control of his life. His seven sisters used to pick on him mercilessly as a kid and still do today. As a result, Barry has an extremely volatile temper and he can’t control his sudden bursts of destructive rage when something angers him. He wants someone he can trust and confide in, but everywhere he turns the people he opens up to betray their confidence. Barry becomes so desperate that he calls a phone sex line just so he can talk with someone anonymously about his life. The phone sex operator in return blackmails him with all his personal information, demanding he pay her rent for her.

The love story that occurs in this film is so markedly fresh that it feels like a breath of fresh air for both Barry and the audience. Barry and Lena (Emily Watson, who I’m so used to seeing solely in art house films that it was rather a fun juxtaposition seeing her act opposite Adam Sandler--in a still artsy, non-Sandler-typical comedy) fall for each other effortlessly. Through Lena’s love, Barry finds the power within him to finally take control of his temper and his life. The scene where Barry first finds himself taking control against the phone sex business’ hired hoodlums, wielding his strength and mettle with same mastery that Aragorn wields the Sword of Elendil in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, will most likely be heading up my next installment of Sombrero Grande’s "Boner" Moments in Cinema. At first I wondered why Olive Oyl’s song "He Needs Me" from Robert Altman’s Popeye was used in Punch-Drunk Love, and then it came to me: Lena is Barry’s "spinach." Her love is the thing that gives him great power, making Punch-Drunk Love both a very romantic and off-kilter film at the same time. Love is the most powerful thing in this movie, but it’s never sappy. The scene where Barry and Lena hold hands for the first time is honestly touching. The camera’s iris zooms in on just their hands, reminiscent of a cinematic gesture from the early days of cinema when a filmmaker wanted to say without any hint of subtlety, "LOOK HERE!" It may initially seem like a hokey or "weird" filmic moment, but tell me that the first time you held the hand of someone you loved that your two hands didn’t suddenly become the only two things in the entire world.

One aspect of the film I’ll nit-pick is the fact that the music occasionally gets quite overbearing. I understand that the mix of unusual percussion instruments at moments like when Barry is dealing with the phone sex operator’s threats while also talking with his aggressive sister and meeting Lena is meant to--and aptly does--set a chaotic and stressful mood, but it’s not a good thing when a film’s score makes itself as prominent as a crying baby in a theater. I get that it was supposed to be distracting and while it did help enforce the idea that Barry’s life was currently in shambles and help convey Barry’s state of mind to the audience, it felt a little too forced for my Movie Snob taste.

Go ahead and think about and talk about the significance of the piano, the car crash, all of that after the movie. If you’re looking for an enjoyable film that can prompt discussion afterwards, consider falling into Punch-Drunk Love.


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