Are You With Us?
By Ryan Mazie
December 16, 2010
Punch-Drunk Love has a look and feel to it that just yells arthouse cinema. The quality sometimes is a bit grainy, the music playing in the scenes is long and constant, and Barry wears the same bright blue suit in almost every single scene. However, every scene has some sort of symbolism to it whether it be color (Barry’s suit) or the absurd number of exit signs in Lena’s maze of an apartment complex. With these many subtleties (I am sure I have missed some of them), I would like to re-watch this film again even though I think it is entirely un-pleasurable, to analyze and dissect (but this time around I’ll have a pudding instead of popcorn while viewing). This is why Paul Thomas Anderson is such a brilliant filmmaker. His little Easter eggs of characteristics that his films contain are worth taking about no matter how good or bad the finished project is and why his films are inherently with us.
Many people love this film, for it smashes all of the romantic comedy clichés and replaces them with dark humor and realistic expectations. While it is nice to see the woman ask the man out, my problem with this compliment is that Punch-Drunk Love to me is not a romantic comedy to begin with. First off, I would call it a drama and secondly the film is less about the romance and more about Barry opening up to another human and not being a social hermit.
Certified fresh on RottenTomatoes at 79%, the common thread through all of the reviews (even the negative ones) is that Sandler gives a phenomenal performance. While indeed he does a more than serviceable job, I just couldn’t shake off the feeling that if Barry told a few punch lines with an assist cameo from Rob Schneider, that this would be no different than any other one of his performances (Un-Happy Gilmore????). While the film won best director at the Cannes Film Festival, that was about the highest honor the film received. Shut out at the Oscars, Sandler’s only major accolade for the film came in the form of a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a Comedy/Musical (side note: Richard Gere won for my favorite musical, Chicago).
While marketed as an arthouse film even though financed by Sandler’s stable house Sony, Sandler reportedly still took home his usual paycheck, accounting for almost a third of the $25 million budget. Released in October 2002, coming hot off of Mr. Deeds that summer, the film seemed poised to win. Opening in five theaters on October 11th, with a scorching hot $367,000 weekend, the film noticeably cooled down a month later when it reached its widest theater count of 1293 locations. Winding up with a disappointing $17.8 million, Sandler proved that outside of the comedy genre, audiences weren’t responding. Five years later, his acclaimed performance in Reign Over Me (and this time I agreed with the public consensus) did only about $2 million better, making these two films his lowest grossing movies of the 2000s. Meanwhile, in that same time frame all but three of Sandler’s comedies (Eight Crazy Nights, Spanglish, Funny People) made $100 million or more.
The most underrated aspect about the film is the performance by British actress Emily Watson. An actress no one knows quite what to do with is brilliant as Barry’s lover. While we never understand the attraction between the two, by just looking in her eyes you see an undeniable connection. Patient and understanding of Barry’s condition, Watson creates a character from practically nothing. Sadly, even with two Oscar nominations for Best Lead Actress in 1997 and 1999, Emily failed to crossover to the States and after the early 2000s fell off the map. Here’s to hoping for a comeback next year with a major role in Spielberg’s War Horse.
While I might not see what Punch-Drunk Love has to offer like many others, I appreciate the uniqueness and the hints of character that distinctively make the film Paul Thomas Anderson. Exposing us to the possibilities of what Adam Sandler is capable of. Certainly not a knockout, Punch-Drunk Love is worth, with expectations in check, looking at.