PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE

2002; written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson; 91 mins

“… it’s illogical and beautiful, just like falling in love.”

These words, written by Steve Hughes in the Radio Times really helped me get onboard with this film. The fact that this quirky indie romance about a bathroom novelties salesman with sister issues and his spluttering romance with a mysterious Englishwoman isn’t one of the most infuriating films of all time is almost the most illogical thing about it. In actual fact, it’s one of the great millennial triumphs so far!

Adam Sandler as troubled, introverted, occasionally volcanically violent Barry Egan gives us an expertly calibrated comic performance. Never at rest for most of the movie, Barry’s body forever wants to be somewhere else other than the spot it’s in. Notice the progression of his body language throughout the movie – that’s kind of the character arc right there. Now that is cinematic storytelling!

Not enough praise goes to Emily Watson, however. Always great, here, she has what is essentially a cypher in Lena Leonard; we never learn where she’s from, why she wanted to meet Barry, what is it that makes her tick. She isn’t a Manic-Pixie-Dream-Girl because Watson gives the character a grounded quality that stops her from flying away into the emotional ether.

This has had a longer road towards the kind of critical mass that other PTA films have gotten so easily and it seems that comedies or just plain happy films will never quite get that full sweep of approval like their heart of darkness drama counterparts. Well, whatever! Like Boy, Somers Town, Dazed and Confused and The Firemen’s Ball, I keep coming back to this because I know that it’ll make me happy! Happiness is also an essential component of the cinematic experience, it was good enough for the musicals of the 30s, 40s and 50s so why not now? In a recent interview, composer Jon Brion revealed that PTA wanted “a musical but nobody ever actually breaks into song” and whilst not wanting to tread on Fred Astaire’s toes, think about PTA’s thing for the longer take… not too much of a stretch to imagine that he will one day do a full-blown musical…

The musical connection makes sense too because one of the great joys of this film is that it’s a tightly-wound construction that’s also light on it’s feet. It’s a transitional film in PTA’s career because we can see him begin to loosen up. In his early thirties by then, he was seemingly over trying to wow everybody with directorial razzmatazz, which features much more heavily in the scenes with Barry’s blithely abusive sisters and his travails with a sex relief phoneline. High stress is accompanied by faster camera movements and a rise in layered dialogue and music cues. As Barry allows himself to get close to Lena, the direction calms down with him. From here, we can see PTA moving towards the more observant visual storytelling of There Will Be Blood and onwards. This film, though? It’s a perfectly lovely midpoint.

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