The United States of America
Lena Leonard: You got me out of my hotel room. You came and got me out of my room...It's so nice.
Punch-Drunk Love is a strange movie about strange things happening to strange people. Sometimes the events are tragic, sometimes bizarre, and sometimes uplifting. The story is deceptively simple despite its execution. The characters who inhabit it are uneasy, nervous, and occasionally psychotic. They make bad choices, idiotic mistakes, and even sometimes life-threatening ones. And yet, by the end of the movie, we feel a bond with them that few other films are able to create. Simply put, Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love is the greatest American love story never told. For while most films attempt to recreate love on the screen, Punch-Drunk Love provides it in an undiluted form that is so powerful that it may feel overwhelming to movie-goers who have been drugged on romcom popcorn flicks for decades.
Anderson was no stranger to emotional films that featured large, ensemble casts with volatile characters: Boogie Nights contains some of the best acting performances of the Nineties and There Will Be Blood gets my nomination for the best leading male performance since Marlon Brando in The Godfather. But here, he only has a couple of significant roles. First and foremost is Barry Egan, a self-made business man who runs a company that sells novelty toilet plungers and other novelty items. We see him at the beginning of the movie in a long shot that has him cramped into the corner of a huge room with his desk making phone calls. This shot establishes his character perfectly: he is an isolated man. He tries to reach out to society, to people, but it is never normal.
After this opening shot, we are treated to one of the strangest and yet most captivating opening sequences in recent memory. He walks outside of his building and stares at the street. Anderson frames this scene in long, geometric shots that examine the action from the front, back, left, and right of Barry. It is early in the morning and there is no traffic. Nor is there anybody else out on the sidewalks. Suddenly, he sees a car do a barrel-role down the street in a loud crash. Incredulously, he looks on. Immediately, another car pulls up in front of him, deposits a harmonium in front of him, and drives away. He retreats into his building, but he peeks out and sees that it is still there. As he tries to approach it, a car enters the parking lot. Startled, he tries to retreat, but a woman gets out and asks him if she can leave her car there for the mechanic. He uncomfortably reassures her that she can. She leaves, and he reenters the building. His employees arrive and the work day begins.
If this all sounded strange, don't worry, because it is strange. It establishes the kind of world that Egan lives in: one in which things just seem to happen. Not necessarily ordinary or incredible things, but strange things. Later, Barry figures out a loophole in a Healthy Choice promo that allows him to get one million frequent flyer miles simply by purchasing large amounts of pudding. Barry is constantly berated by his seven sisters who have no problem of insulting him to his face and yet can't understand why he acts so strangely. He is seized by sudden, intense fits of rage that cause him to break things. Early on, at a party at his sisters house, after repeatedly being mocked by his sisters he shocks everyone when he breaks all of their patio windows. Later, when his sisters is brought up in a conversation, he destroys a public bathroom. So I repeat, strange things happen Barry Egan.
I probably should have mentioned this earlier, but I guess that now is as good a time as ever to say that Barry is played by Adam Sandler. That's right, the same Adam Sandler who made a fool out of himself in such 'classics' as The Waterboy, Little Nicky, and Big Daddy. It is disconcerting to see him in such a serious role, but he knocks it out of the park. I'm going to throw up my hands in defeat and quote Roger Ebert one more time because I cannot for the life of me sum up Sandler's performance better than he did in his review:
"Sandler, liberated from the constraints of formula, reveals unexpected depths as an actor. Watching this film, you can imagine him in Dennis Hopper roles. He has darkness, obsession and power.”
And what power. I have always believed that comedians make some of the best serious actors because in the pursuit of their craft they had to perfect a sense of dramatic (and comedic) timing. And watching Sandler here, we can only imagine what inner demons must have lurked around in his head, begging to be let out.
This was his first serious role outside of comedy, but it wasn't his last. As one of maybe ten people who actually say his performance in 2007's Reign Over Me, I can confidently say that Sandler is one of the most powerful actors working today. The fact that he wasn't nominated for any awards is downright criminal. And once again, Sandler was able to flex his dramatic muscles this year in Funny People, where he plays a comedian who has to face his impending death. All three roles prove that behind his playful exterior is a man capable of projecting a kind of hurt that is rarely seen in movies. It is here, in Punch-Drunk Love that we see it for the first time. This is important. Until then, audiences expected crazy antics out of Sandler. To see him so down-trodden and hurt produced a powerful reacion among movie-goers. We want to see him get better. We want to see him get the girl. But first he must earn her. But it isn't easy for Barry Egan. For his greatest shortcoming is an overpowering sense of naivety.
In his loneliness, he calls a phone sex line. He doesn't want any kind of stimulation, but instead just wants to talk to somebody. I guess he never gets to talk to people who are required to listen to what he says. The phone sex operator can't understand what is going on.
“You getting hot?”
“No, not really.”
“Are you naked?”
He struggles with her for a few minutes, but not before making a massive mistake by giving the company his personal information, credit card number, and social security number. I guess he was incapable of distrusting people, because no sane person would do the same thing. Of course, he is blackmailed by a group of scammers based out of Utah. They demand money. They insist that if he is going to be a pervert, he will have to pay for it. Barry doesn't get angry or upset at this. He just gets confused. He calls up the service and asks them why they are doing it. They respond by sending out four men who beat and rob him. Once again, he calls the company and says that he was assaulted and he insists to speak to the manager.
The fact that Barry acts this way proves that he is socially inept, at least unto a certain degree. But that changes when he meets Lena Leonard (Emily Watson) again. She is introduced to Barry by his sister Elizabeth, one of her co-workers. Obviously she intended to hook the two up together, but why, might I ask, does she constantly tell Lena that he is acting weird? Wait a minute. Lena looks familiar to Barry. Where has he seen her before? Oh! That was Lena who left her car outside of his building at the beginning of the film! It turns out that she dropped her car off because she wanted to see him after seeing a picture of him with Elizabeth. It turns out that she in incredibly in love with him, but doesn't know how to approach him. In fact, it turns out that Lena has been following Barry for a while now, trying to contact him. You can actually see her following Barry while he is in the supermarket 21 minutes and 30 seconds into the film. Of course, she is out of focus, but we see her vibrant red dress. It could not be anyone else.
So here the relationship develops between two people who really have no business being in a relationship: Barry is an anti-social train wreck, Lena is a timid woman who is afraid to reach out to him. But that is why their relationship works. They need each other. It isn't as simple as love-on-first-sight or infatuation. Barry and Lena complete each other. One can provide a kind of strength that the other cannot make. It is the kind of desperate need that make the films Last Tango in Paris, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and Leaving Las Vegas such perfect love movies. They are the antithesis of traditional Hollywood love stories where two characters fall in love simply because they are the first attractive man and woman who appear on the screen. I call it the Hitchcock Effect. If you examine Hitchcock's work, rarely do you feel any kind of genuine attraction between the love interests. Take Marnie where Sean Connery tells Tippi Hedren that he loves her. His entire confession is said in an almost complete monotone voice. There is no passion behind the performances, no chemistry.
I think that Hollywood, and most of the movie-making world, thinks that love stories have to be big, dramatic spectacles. I whole-heartedly disagree. Sometimes the most powerful love scenes are the most subtle. One of my all time favorite love scenes is in Rocky when he takes Adrian to the ice rink and he scuttles on the ice in his shoes as they talk. These are the subtle moments that make cinematic relationships real. Punch-Drunk Love has one of these moments, too. Near the end of the movie, Barry follows Lena to Hawaii on a business trip. They share dinner and Lena leans forward and says, “You got me out of my hotel room. You came and got me out of my room...It's so nice.” She finally can leave her hotel room because she finally has a reason to.