Recommended Viewing Situation:
Playing your harmonium whilst singing love songs to your stalker.
Running Time: 95 minutes.
Format: 35mm Film on a Panavision Panaflex Platinum.
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson.
Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson.
Cinematographer: Robert Elswit.
Awards: Oscar: Golden Globe Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical Nominated; Cannes Film Festival 2002 Best Director Tied with Kwon-taek Im for Painted Fire (2002); Palme d’Or Nominated and more.
‘I love you’ can mean so many things. How are we to know (in the words of Foreigner) ‘what love is’? Is love the maddening ups and downs that films show us; the gargantuan gestures of self-sacrifice that are in fact self-aggrandising; the over-the-top displays of affection that up-root a person’s entire existence with no sense of consequence? Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it being a hero? Punch-Drunk Love (2002) is the ‘simple’ story of Barry Egan (Adam Sandler), a severely disturbed plunger salesman, who falls in love with an equally unstable British woman, Lena Leonard (Emily Watson). During the film our hero must face great hardship for his love in the form of a crooked phone sex operator and her boss Dean Trumbell (Phillip Seymour-Hoffman).
Let’s just get this out of the way now. This reviewer is not the biggest ‘fan’ of Adam Sandler. Rather, I avoid having to watch or consider Adam Sandler doing anything remotely related to acting. However, enter the never faltering hand of cinematic genius, Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master (2012) and There Will Be Blood (2007)) and Sandler gives the perfect performance; this is an excellent example of great casting. Sandler often plays characters that are fundamentally creeps in need of lifestyle reappraisal. His characters are angry, impulsive, socially obtuse and generally unhinged, but in the context of this film that is an intricate cog in a much larger machine of intrigue and wonder. Anderson unfurls a world that is gritty, real and seeks to ask intricate reflexive questions about Romance Films: what kind of person in reality would it actually take to be the protagonist of such a genre? What kind of reasoning would it take to perform absurd gestures of romance akin to these films? And, what are the realities of living up to those tropes? The results are visceral and darkly comedic, riddled with homages to French New Wave ennui reminiscent of Goddard’s oeuvre, and cartoon iris wipes, making this satirical platter just that bit richer. At this point it would be foolish to forget the steadfast excellence of cinematographer Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood (2007) and Inherent Vice (2014)) as he seamlessly integrates iconic caricatures of classic films into his own rich but breathable pallet of colour and light.
There is, as with many of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films, an extra layer of intrigue. Some of you may have come across the ‘Superman’ idea. I’m not one for these theories usually, personally I think they trivialise universal themes that are akin to many good narratives, whilst reducing multifaceted works of art to single ideas. However, this one seems to add another layer of playful and satirical subtext to PTA’s film. Let me explain, what if Barry Egan was Superman? The ‘ultimate’ love story. Let’s look at a comparison. Barry wears a blue suit with a red tie; reminiscent of the caped crusader, though tenuous I’ll admit. Barry can fly, not in the way you might think, but as the movie will show Barry can fly wherever he wants within reason. Barry is super strong; there are two fight scenes in the film with wildly contrasting results. Barry is deeply affected by his childhood environment; Superman is only weakened by kryptonite, a product of his home world. Lena Leonard’s initials are ‘L.L.’ like Lois Lane’s. Leonard wears red and when cradling Egan uncannily resembles a cape. Is this a wider commentary on the Hollywood ideals that shape modern romances or merely a result of humorous post-structural extrapolation? Maybe love is about being a hero, or at least, punch-drunk love is.