Adam Sandler basically formed my childhood love of absurdist and juvenile comedy. My first exposure to him was his early comedy albums he did with friends like Tim Meadows and David Spade during his time on SNL. He was Opera Man on SNL, wrote the Lunch Lady song, and generally was the “weird one” of the Bad Boys of SNL’s early to mid-90’s cast. Then came the real blossoming of his talent, yes I said talent, in a string of critically panned yet incredibly hilarious (to 10 year-old me) movies starting with Airheads, reaching its peak with Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison and The Waterboy, and reaching its tired conclusion with Mr. Deeds. Adam Sandler was the master of my comedic childhood and it was pretty common to spout lines like, “Shampoo is better,” while showering, yelling “why don’t you just go home,” when I missed a putt in golf, or mumble like Farmer Fran.
The same year as Mr. Deeds, 2002, Paul Thomas Anderson was back with a new movie starring Adam Sandler. Coming off the success of Magnolia, his third feature-length movie, and having burst onto the scene with his sophomore effort, Boogie Nights, PTA was on a roll. Punch-Drunk Love was a surprising choice for PTA considering his star, but he had said he always wanted to do an Adam Sandler movie (thanks to Elijah Davidson for the tip on that one).
Punch-Drunk Love is the story of Barry Egan (Adam Sandler). A psychologically troubled novelty supplier with a neurotic streak is forcefully nudged by one of his sisters into a relationship with a quiet and unassuming woman, Lena (Emily Watson). He is hounded by his sisters for his odd behavior and loner tendencies and it becomes very obvious something is a little off about Barry. His interpersonal skills are quite lacking, he can fly into fits of rage, and he is prone to strange schemes befitting of his novelty supplier occupation that would make extreme couponers proud. When he gives in to his loneliness and calls a phone sex hotline, he is extorted by the corrupt mattress store owner (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who runs the hotline scam, and he must escape his cronies, attempt to date Lena, and hoard pudding (kudos for Sandler working in a snack pack reference).
What is absolutely great about this movie is both the draw and repulsion of Adam Sandler. It must have made critics spasm to see a great director like Paul Thomas Anderson align himself with comedic goofball Adam Sandler. However, Anderson is able to rein in that goofball nature and focus Sandler’s insanity into a much more quiet, yet funny, and pensive character. You can feel the Sandler persona lying just under the surface. One particular chase scene in the movie threatens to bring that out as his energy amps up, yet in that scene and many others Sandler tones down what would usually devolve into comic absurdity and channel it into neurosis and a sympathetic relational density. It’s the directors that have been able to turn Sandler’s screwballs into devastating changeups that have seen him put together a solid dramatic performance (baseball analogy FTW!).
It manages to be sweet without being saccharine and have real drama without being melodramatic.
The neurosis and awkwardness of Barry Egan is matched by the off-putting and punchy (pun intended) sound design surrounding a beautiful score from Jon Brion. The sound gives you an uncomfortable feeling that permeates the movie and almost feels like a tour of Barry’s slightly fractured mind. All of this sound swirls along with clever lighting that adds depth and added discomfort. Brion’s score evokes a more romantic mood amidst all these elements and it is a crazy mashup that adds just a hint of quirk and vexing nuance.
What makes Punch-Drunk Love so magical is how it overturns what we expect a romantic comedy to be. It’s not really all that romantic, since the romantic pair is incredibly awkward, and it’s not all that laugh out loud funny. It manages to major on the minor quirks and explores a little more of what love might be like for normal, slightly messed up people. It manages to be sweet without being saccharine and have real drama without being melodramatic. It defies the normal conventions of a love story but feels all the more real because of it’s unconventional tone and characters. That is why it is my recommendation for your weekend Netflix viewing. Give it a watch this weekend and let us know what you think!