Lonely, emotionally repressed and permanently nagged by his overbearing sisters, novelty plunger salesman Barry Egan (Sandler) is prone to explosive outbursts of violent rage. While attempting to exploit a potentially-lucrative loophole in a marketing promotion, Barry meets Lena (Watson), a friend of one of his sisters, and the two begin a tentative romance. But as Barry tries to keep his anger under control, matters are complicated by a shifty phone-sex company who’re extorting him for money…
As unconventional and irregular a romantic comedy as you’re likely to find, Punch-Drunk Love undoubtedly isn’t for everyone. Following the sprawling ensembles of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, critically-adored filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson shifts gears into a shorter, protagonist-centred romantic-comedy – if you can even call it that. Neither romantic nor funny in the traditional sense, it’s a warped and exhaustingly offbeat love story which will likely delight arthouse fans while leaving average viewers cold.
It’s also full of unexplained subplots, weird happenings and unusual dialogue (during a tender scene, Barry says of Lena’s face: “I just wanna fuckin’ smash it with a sledgehammer”). Frequently employing long, unbroken takes and built around Jon Brion’s jagged, over-powering score, there’s certainly no questioning the technical ability on show, but unfortunately the end result is often more impressive than it is involving. Somewhat detached and distant, we observe and study these characters, as opposed to liking or identifying with them.
Unquestionably though, Punch-Drunk Love offers Adam Sandler a chance to prove that he really can act. In many ways, Barry is a typical Sandler character – a polite man-child with a tendency for angry outbursts – but here he plays it straight without any of the broad antics we’re used to in his usual lowbrow comedies. As mentioned earlier, Barry isn’t always the easiest character to like or identify with (apart from when his hateful sisters are nagging), but it’s really satisfying to see him kick ass later on as the mouse-that-roared.
Emily Watson is lovely as the love interest, but sadly there’s no real chemistry between her and Sandler. Aside from the fact that they’re both oddballs, why exactly do they like each other? Who knows. Additionally, Anderson regulars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Luis Guzman feature in support.
As unconventional and irregular a romantic comedy as you’re likely to find, Punch-Drunk Love undoubtedly isn’t for everyone.