Punch-Drunk Love

Review by Walid Habboub

September 17, 2002

I can't believe I'm sitting here with the Waterboy!

It's been said so many, many times by so many actors that it has become an accepted truth: Comedy is more difficult to do than drama. Along with that goes an understanding that a comedian, or a comedic actor, will usually do a much better job at transitioning to dramas than a dramatic actor sliding into comedic roles. At the center of Punch-Drunk Love is such a transition, a fact that has brought the film most of the attention it has been getting. Featuring Adam Sandler's first serious pseudo-dramatic role, Punch-Drunk Love definitely highlights Sandler in a big way, but it is not in the way people have been anticipating.

Much will be said about how this film is Adam Sandler doing a serious role and rumors are already flying that Sandler might be an early candidate for an Oscar nomination. While that remains to be seen, Sandler does undeniably good work in a role that was seemingly written especially for him. Driving this film is acclaimed director Paul Thomas Anderson, who is best known for his two epic, emotional dramas Boogie Nights and Magnolia. It is Anderson who triumphs here, as he presents what, on the surface, is a tightly put-together, well done and slightly above-average film, but it also - on another, much higher level of movie-making - can be considered quite brilliant.

The plot of the film is essentially that of any Sandler comedy. A quirky yet lovable loser called Barry Egen wants to lead a simple life. He asks for little and tries to get by on his own. He is the lone son in a family of eight siblings. His seven sisters teased him incessantly as a child and under his calm, shy, social-outcast exterior lies an anger that very rarely rears its ugly head. Enter the girl, played by Emily Watson, and her crush for a guy whose awkwardness and shyness can only be taken to be charming by very few people. At the same time, Barry's life becomes complicated when a call to a phone sex line has some strange twists to it. It all culminates in a frenetic ending that is also very typical for a Sandler picture.

So what makes this film different from Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison? First off, the film is meticulously directed by Anderson, whose gift for visual story telling has always been one of his best skills. Unlike his two previous films, Anderson doesn't overindulge here and lets the story drive itself, except for one glaring scene that involves a dining-room table. The film is beautifully shot and has an art-house film feel to it. His use of deep focus shots and background vs. foreground action is brilliant. Also, long shots are effectively used in perfect moderation. The script is excellent as it purposely pulls the audience into Barry's world. Through the use of overlapping dialogue, quick cuts and frenetic sound, Anderson manages to replicate Barry's mental state for the viewer. This makes it much easier for us to sympathize with a character who we normally would not look twice at on the street. All these, combined with the fact that the film was created as an "art" film, keep it on a different level from other Sandler films.

On that particular level, the film works really well. It is well-acted, well-directed and captivating. It is also a very sweet film and quite positive overall, which is again a change for Anderson. But the real treat of the film comes on a much higher level, a level that requires a certain perspective.

What Anderson manages to do is give us a deconstruction of the Sandler comedy. Including other actors, such as Rob Schneider, the lovable idiot formula has been quite abundant in American cinemas over the past few years. Anderson turns the genre on its head; not by radically changing it, but by just making it better. Sandler plays the same character he always plays and the general plot is a typical Sandler comedy minus the dick and fart jokes. What makes Punch-Drunk Love special is that Anderson makes the lovable idiot a three-dimensional character and gives him motivation and depth. All his actions have reason and all his faults are very much human. And while the big mess that becomes his life halfway through the film is quite farcical, it never strays away from being believable. Anderson manages to break down all the elements of a Sandler film and make it real and honest, and with that he takes this film to another level.

Punch-Drunk Love is by all means a comedy, and not necessarily a dark comedy, either. The film is indeed funny, possibly funnier than any other Sandler film, but it also has truly genuine emotion. Anyone who has felt alone in the world will be able to relate to it on many levels. It is an honest film that speaks to the power of love and the strong feeling of the need to belong. It is meticulously executed, and at around 100 minutes in length, is succinct and not overindulgent. The film is truly a triumph for those who preach the fact that good mainstream movies can still be made. It's proof that a safe and highly accessible story can still be parlayed into a great film that can reach a very wide audience. Unlike Stephen Soderbergh's Erin Brokovich, which only pseudo-treaded the art film-as-mainstream movie line, Punch-Drunk Love is uncompromising in reminding a viewer of what he or she is watching. Where Soderbergh stayed within the norm, Anderson made the norm his.

What will come of this film around Oscar time is up to anyone to guess. While Sandler's performance is solid and very touching, it is not as great as most observers would like it to be. Sandler will receive praise purely for the fact that he is a comedian doing serious drama, much like Jim Carrey did for The Truman Show. Sandler is very good and displays moments of truly great acting, but his role is merely a quieter, less vulgar version of the roles he is used to doing. He is great, but the role unfortunately doesn't ask much of him.

The true award-deserving effort here belongs to Anderson, who unconventionally made an unconventional conventional movie (Think about that one for a second). His efforts here go beyond technical achievements or the ability to pull performances out of actors. He transcended the screen and made a film that related to other films, even a mini-movement in film. It is Anderson and not Sandler here who has made the transition to a different movie genre. While Sandler delivers a very good performance, he has only moved on to a more mature version of his previous roles. Anderson creates a comedy where his previous films were depressing and edgy. While he still covers the themes of family and belonging, Anderson makes the transition seamlessly and without compromising his filmmaking roots. He once again creates a world that we know and characters we can sympathize with, and he does it masterfully.

Punch-Drunk Love is a film you absolutely should not miss.