One-line review: A drunk in love, Adam Sandler, packs a mean punch.

Punch Drunk Love was PTA’s escape after the long and heavy Magnolia. He wanted to make a short romantic comedy (inspired by Jacques Tati). But we know a PTA film can never be that simplistic, so we have a crazy love story aided by some spectacular music and artwork that conveys the mood of that punchy feeling when you are in love (PTA’s words). The film already had the audience’s interest piqued by its lead, Adam Sandler, who was a box office hit machine, the last actor one would expect in a PTA film. The French journalists at Cannes make no bones about their trepidation about Sandler being able to pull off a PTA film. Kudos to Sandler for letting his work do the talking. However, Sandler does admit to being surprised when PTA asked him to star in his film and says he made sure he was not being cast in a Magnolia kind of film before accepting. PTA says he was always a Sandler fan, and that Sandler comedies were his stressbusters.

The film is about the socially awkward bachelor, Barry Evans (Sandler), the only brother of seven domineering sisters, who runs his business of selling plungers from a non-descript warehouse in CA. Barry has a trusted group of employees, including supervisor Lance (a superb Luis Guzman), familiar with his personal problems. Barry also has an underlying violent streak that threatens to erupt when the bullying exceeds the limits, be it from his sisters or anyone else. And Barry’s strength when he erupts is like Lenny’s from Mice and Men. 

We meet an upbeat Barry at the beginning of the film: he has just discovered a loophole in Healthy Choice Foods’ frequent flier miles program to promote their frozen foods. But Barry realizes he can get a lifetime of miles by stocking up on twenty-five cents puddings (the company omits to mention specific products for their promotion) because each one comes with a different bar code (this is based on a real story). Barry has also just decided to begin wearing a blue suit to work, taking his co-workers by surprise, although we see them wear suits too by the end of the film. 

The film shows how even the most mundane surroundings can become magical when love enters them. Barry’s quiet morning coffee moment outside his warehouse is suffused with the orange hues of sunrise when Lena Leonard (Emily Watson) drives into his life to leave her car at the next-door mechanic. This scene is the calm before the typical storm in Barry’s day because calls from his seven sisters constantly interrupt his meetings with customers. They are calling to make sure he is coming to their party that evening, and their tones alternate from casual inquiry to outright threats. Barry’s underlying sweet nature is established in this opening scene because he takes each call patiently without the slightest hint of annoyance. It’s clear that Barry is a long-bullied and conditioned brother resigned to his fate. But Barry reaches his breaking point with his sisters’ teasing at the party and smashes a window. He then dissolves into tears before his dentist brother-in-law and asks him to help him. A lonely Barry also calls a phone sex line to talk to someone, but it turns out to be a con operation run from a mattress store to extort customers after collecting their personal information.

In the meantime, Lena happens to be Barry’s sister’s colleague whom she is trying to set up for Barry. For some inexplicable reason, Lena, a successful executive, is attracted to a messed-up Barry, although everything goes wrong, including their first date. Barry has a meltdown when he realizes his sister has told Lena some of his embarrassing stories and tears up the restaurant bathroom, and they are asked to leave. But Lena is unfazed; only she and the audience see the good and charming Barry and invest in him. In the meantime, the phone sex company led by Mattress Man (Philip Seymour Hoffman is unforgettable in this small part) sends four brothers to beat Barry up, inadvertently hurting Lena. Barry quietly handles the threat once and for all by flying to Ohio and scaring the hell out of Mattress Man, telling him, “I have a love in my life; that makes me stronger than anything you can imagine.” This line sums up the film’s gist after Lena enters Barry’s life; like the Mattress Man, we too say “that’s that,” no more ridicule, just respect.

One must credit PTA for capturing the film’s essence in its title; everything about the film is punch- drunk, the story, acting, music, camera, and artwork. Jon Brion’s exquisite score is the third lead in the movie, shadowing the moments in Barry’s life with trippy beats, romantic ballads (including a heady “he needs me”), and soaring classical bits. Brion rues how film scores are added these days after the film is made. But for Punch Drunk Love, Brion came on board right at the beginning. Who knew that PTA could also give spot-on suggestions of the type of beats that work for the scenes? Brion says the goal was to make the film sound like a musical without anyone breaking into song, forceful yet beneath the surface, almost sinister. PTA was inspired by the film Baraka and wanted stretches of the movie to have no dialogue, just music.

And then there is Jeremy Blake’s artwork: you first wonder what is going on as the screen fills up with rainbow colors or dots, like a children’s film, but everything makes complete sense in the larger scheme of punch-drunk love. PTA carefully chose the film’s palette: only Barry’s blue suit and Lena’s red dress would pop, and everything else was painted white. Background colors appear only in Hawaii, where Lena then switches to a white dress.

But there would be no punch-drunk love without Adam Sandler, who plays Barry with the manic energy of a man in love desperately trying to burst out of his current messed-up life. Sandler’s Barry is that impossible mix of innocence, goodness, sweetness, violence, selfishness, everything that makes him irresistible to Lena (and us). Sandler’s puppy-like look in bed while Lena is discussing him with his sister on the phone could go terribly wrong in the hands of a lesser actor. And boy, can Adam Sandler run (another essential skill to make the movie work). Emily Watson is the perfect foil for Sandler, like a trippy Madonna. Watson says PTA told her she would have to forget everything she had done until then and just be present; her stillness gives the shaky film its even keel. The film’s enduring appeal is its unique leads: a successful pairing that was never repeated; you must go back to this film if you want to see them together. 

Will Barry and Lena live happily ever after? Will Barry’s overbearing sisters continue to interfere in his life? We can be rest assured that, with a lifetime of free miles, Barry can escape with Lena whenever he wants.

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