Punch-Drunk Love (2002) by Paul Thomas Anderson
Personal Essay / Retro Review by Andrew Swafford
Last month, I got engaged. My fiancée, Jess, is a golden-hearted and intelligent wanderlust who works at a teen rehab center and comes on the podcast semi-regularly to defend movies like Shrek, The Secret Life of Pets, and The Neon Demon from our cruel snobbishness. She has put up with my eccentricities, introversion, and insecurites for over seven years now and has more love for me than I can rationalize. I am profoundly not worthy of this--and the engagement has got me thinking about one of my personal favorite love stories.
Nothing makes sense about the romance of Punch-Drunk Love. It is hard to imagine a woman as stately and wise and naturally beautiful as Emily Watson’s character, Lena, falling for someone as childlike, bumbling, and erratic as Adam Sandler’s Barry Egan. He is the typical Sandler man-child made flesh, painfully awkward in the context of the real adult world and stunted emotionally to the point of forcing the audience to sympathize with him--but not fall in love with him. Lena does, and it’s baffling. One can easily imagine her caring for him in a more maternal way, but...how does she fall in love with him? Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love leaves this question unanswered, and rather than feeling like yet another cinematic fantasy of male-entitlement, it gets at the core of what romantic love so often is: irrational, absurd, and miraculous.
Sandler’s Barry Egan lives alone and runs his own small business, but he’s all nerves and violent energy--punch drunk--and the film’s camerawork and musical score (by Jon Brion, who later produced records for Kanye West and Fiona Apple) punctuates the ebb and flow of his anxiety, allowing us to feel as uncomfortable as he does in adult environments and informal conversations. At his worst, he smashes things (windows, bathrooms, walls) and cries uncontrollably; at his best, he speaks with great formality to avoid fumbling his words (i.e. “business is very food”) and overdresses in a blue business suit to project a false image of suave confidence--but it always feels too big for him in a David Byrne-y sense.
When Barry is feeling particularly nervous and overwhelmed, Jon Brion’s score is clattery and whirring, a seemingly random series of bleeps/bloops and pots/pans that were apparently written/recorded on set, choreographed to Anderson’s extended, motion-heavy camera takes. When he seeks personal solace, the score becomes a soft waltz that sometimes harmonizes with what Barry is feeling out on his musical instrument (a mysterious harmonium). Scenes of emotional chemistry between Barry and Lena are showtune-level pleasant, such as the Hawaiian “Waikiki” or “He Needs Me,” which is lifted straight from Robert Altman’s Popeye and sums up the dynamic between Barry and Lena with great sincerity.
Your mileage may vary regarding how much you actually end up caring for the guy, obviously--he’s a lot to take. But if you don’t find a way to connect, the movie completely falls apart. It’s too reliant on emotional buy-in to work on another level. I’ve spoken to people who can’t stand Barry Egan, and to be honest, I don’t fully understand those people. As for me, the day may come when I stop relating to and admiring male characters who feel uncomfortable in their own skin / positions of power yet somehow find ways to exude confidence despite the fact (Scream and Moonrise Kingdom have great ones), but today is not that day. Barry is a pure soul, infantile and insufferable as he may be.
Lena, on the other hand, is too perfect to be true. According to fan speculation and nebulous internet sources, Lena’s character may have been originally conceived as an actual alien, which is practically the only way to logically connect the film’s romantic dots. There’s some validity to this: the opening scene shows Barry witness a freak-accident explosion that is never brought up again, but Lena does show up minutes later. In the original DVD release, her arrival scene was titled “Lena Drops” while another was called “Alien Abduction.” She seems to be stealthily following Barry through the background of the supermarket early on in the film, and a later supermarket scene contains a strange “female electronic voice” (named such by the subtitles) saying things like “You are on your way. Don’t stop now. Don’t be discouraged, and don’t be sad” as Barry dances around with excitement for his trip to see Lena in Hawaii. I watch all movies with subtitles--even English language ones--due to the significance of that detail.
A deleted scene even shows Lena watching NASA space footage alone in her apartment, and the film makes frequent reference to Barry’s “seven sisters,” which is numerically insignificant except to place the drama among the cosmos with the well-known constellation of the same name (the prominently placed "Atlas Van Lines" logo holds similar astrological significance). Anderson’s near constant use of supernatural-looking lens flare--as well as the inclusion of abstract artist Jeremy Blake’s luminous color washes--support the film’s overall ethereal vibe. Some of the film’s many spectacular oscillations of light are hard to call lens flares at all, as they look more like passing UFOs--the one that flashes through the hallway of Lena’s Hawaiian hotel is the most extreme example--and it comes at Barry’s peak moment of happiness and contentment before complications escalate.
Of course, that otherworldly light display could just be a passing car--and how do you explain the fact that Barry’s sister seems to have known Lena for a long time? These points would invalidate any purely cerebral fan-theorizing--but I’m less interested in what is objectively true in the world of the movie’s plot and more interested in the feeling that is communicated by these aesthetic and contextual flourishes. Lena may not literally be a space alien sent to bring love to Barry’s life--but her affection is so unprecedented and unexplainable, she might as well be. It is the film’s unreal quality--one that Jon Brion says “feel[s] like a musical, but nobody ever breaks into song”--that makes it an ironically believable romance, as the essence of love feels similarly elevated from reality.
Another quote: in last year’s much-beloved film Carol, Cate Blanchett’s character describes the object of her affection as “my angel, flung out of space,” which feels about right--both for the romance of Punch-Drunk Love and the one granted to me by my own partner.
PS - Of course, if love works in irrational ways, then loneliness and isolation does too. I feel for my friends who are stuck in that cosmic sadness--and there are plenty of movies that explore it (see In the Mood for Love, which we discussed on Episode 116). But that's not Punch-Drunk Love--this one is about the mysterious existence of romance in its purest form, and it's a movie I feel fortunate to connect with more than most.