Z To A: Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)

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Plot Synopsis: Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) is a socially impaired owner of a small novelty business who is dominated by seven sisters and is unlikely to find love unless it finds him. When a mysterious woman comes into his life his emotions go haywire, fluctuating between uncontrollable rage, lust and self-doubt… From the writer/director of “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia,” “Punch-Drunk Love” is a dark, lovely and unique film experience.

– From DVD Production Notes

I own Punch-Drunk Love because I suppose there’s a little bit of Barry Egan in all of us. There’s something about his insecurity, fear and rage that is uncomfortably odd but familiar. Or perhaps that’s just me.

As a whole Love is a strange, singular spin on the shopworn “boy meets girl” narrative. Structurally it’s just as odd- there are no credits, for example, but interstitials writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson calls “scorpitones” (created by the late digital artist, Jeremy Blake). It also features Adam Sandler in a role not necessarily playing against type, but actually inhabiting a character: repressed, desperate, deeply flawed and unintentionally hilarious.

It’s these qualities that make people hate Love, which I can fully understand. It had the opposite effect on me. I was fascinated with a film that followed someone so emotionally stunted and out of place, all without a shred of judgment. It also plays from Barry’s state of mind, nowhere else. The scenes build themselves around his anxiety, happiness and flashes of anger. There are even moments when Jon Brion’s score keeps in tune with the keys he presses on a harmonium he finds on the street.

Just as unconventional is Barry’s love interest, Lena (Emily Watson). Loving someone is what changes him, but she isn’t the usual “dream girl” (or even worse, the “manic pixie dream girl“) that shows up in this kind of story. She doesn’t set out to reacquaint Barry with loving life as much as giving him a place to rest. She is calm and understanding, which is the very thing he needs.

The rest of the film centers on the stressors that have made Barry what he is and are dogging him in the present. His sisters continually meddle into his personal life, verbally bullying him and putting him down. He is also getting harassed by a phone sex service he calls near the beginning of the film, getting threatening phone calls and unexpected visits from “four brothers” sent from Provo, Utah (when I realized this during my first viewing, I couldn’t stop laughing). He eventually goes head-to-head with the man who owns the business, Dean Trumbell (Philip Seymour Hoffman), leading to one of my favorite “shut the fuck up”/”go fuck yourself” phone conversations in cinema history.

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The scenes I enjoy the most are when Barry stands up for himself. He’s someone who has been kept down so long it’s cathartic to hear him lash out at his tiresome sister, take down his enemies by force and put Trumbell in his place. There’s no need for violence, because his resolve and confidence speak volumes.

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Now, I love Philip Seymour Hoffman. Love is further proof of his talent because- despite that love- I wanted Sandler to beat the shit out of him in this film. That’s how deplorable he is. The ending might be a let-down in this department, but the point is Barry doesn’t need that kind of resolution (although it’s established he can very well carry it out). His focus is Lena- caring for and being with her, which he orchestrates through… pudding.

No, that isn’t a typo.

Perhaps I should leave it at that (in Barry’s words: “That’s that”). If you don’t know what I mean you might want to figure it out yourself. After all, the whole thing is streaming Netflix.

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