Punch-Drunk Love is Paul Thomas Anderson's fourth feature film; he has helmed such products like Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and most recently There Will Be Blood. I am a huge fan of each of these, especially Blood, which is probably somewhere in the top ten list of my favorite films of all time. It should come to no surprise that I enjoyed it, but this film is definitely not for everyone, for a few reasons.
Perhaps the most unique subject of this film is it's protagonist, Adam Sandler. Sandler jumped into stardom with Saturday Night Live, where he stayed from '91 until '95, when he left to star in feature films, and successfully so. Billy Madison is what essentially launched Sandler into super-stardom (I can't count how many times I shamelessly laughed at that film as a kid), because after the success of that film, he starred in quite a handful of films such as Happy Gilmore, The Wedding Singer, Big Daddy, Little Nicky and many more, all in the time-span of six-years. Because of these films, Sandler made a name for himself as the immature Jewish goofball, who happens to be a guaranteed cash-in for movies; loved by kids, renounced by parents. Then comes 2002, when the arguable throwaway film Mr. Deeds was released, as well the (not so) arguably throwaway disaster Eight Crazy Nights was released. But seemingly at random, Punch-Drunk Love is thrown into the mix. This isn't just another lackluster screwball comedy as most people at the time probably thought. It is in fact a drama, with a hints of black and romantic comedy.
The film is about an odd businessman, Barry (Sandler), who has the obvious lack of social skills, and no friends except for his co-workers and his seven sisters. He also has random bursts of violent range, which always seem to come at the worst possible moments. His sisters have a tendency to verbally torture him throughout the entire film, despite their knowledge of his severe anger problem; it is debatable they are the cause of it in the first place. The problem is that in between these outbursts, he is a total wimp, and basically pathetic as he never defends himself, ever. It's when it builds up inside until the point of no return when he turns into the Hulk. It is obvious that his business isn't doing so well, and yet he has unreasonably high hopes for it to be successful. It is clear from the start, when he attends one of his sister's birthday parties, that he has serious issues, but no one seems to want to help. He soon uses a phone-sex line out of desperation, only to find out that the number was a scam to get his credit card information and social security number (the scam is run by a creepy, hot-headed Phillip Seymour Hoffman, known as Dean Trumbell). This doesn't exactly help with Barry's rage problem. What does help however, is a woman he happens to meet. Lena (Emily Watson) sees something in Barry that no one else does, much to Barry's (and the audience's) surprise. The plot goes on from here; Barry trying to deal with the scammers who are threatening Barry's life if he doesn't cooperate, while at the same time trying not to screw up his opportunity with Lena. As these events unfold, I can't help but feeling more and more sympathetic for Barry, because really, he is a good guy. He just has absolutely no idea how to deal with anything in his life. What is ironic, however, is that his rage problem is basically what saves his dilemma with the criminals, for it basically makes them shit their pants. There is a fantastic scene where Trumbell's goons, who are continuously harassing Barry finally cross a line and threaten Lena's life as well. Barry's reaction is so great that it makes you actually fist-pump in the air for Sandler when it is over (the threats and arguments were previously only done on the phone). Also, the final confrontation scene between Trumbell and Sandler is very tense and satisfying.
There are many other odd things about this film that I could write an entire page about, if I were to attempt to dissect their reasons for existing in the film. For example, Barry wears a blue suit, for the entire duration of the film. He never wears anything else. He finds a harmonium at the beginning of the film and steals it, which he plays at various times throughout the film. Most notably, he spends a tremendous amount of time researching a loophole in a promotion from a pudding company, where he attempts to acquire nearly infinite frequent flyer miles (this is apparently inspired by a true story). This is what seems to be the "comedic relief" of the otherwise dramatic and depressing story (depressing until the ending, at least).
While dramatic films starring Sandler may not be so surprising nowadays, this was his first entry into the genre when I'm sure many people didn't believe he could do it, so this was a big step-forward for his career. Despite this, it is a very underrated film, and should definitely be discussed more often. I believe it is available on Netflix Watch Instantly, so there is no excuse not to see it.