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How to Fight Loneliness

 

Punch-Drunk Love

Paul Thomas Anderson, USA, 2002

Rating: 4.0

 

 

Posted: October 27, 2002

By Laurence Station

With his fourth feature, the aptly-titled Punch-Drunk Love, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson leaves behind the swirling fantasia of Magnolia and the porn fable Boogie Nights to tackle (seemingly) more intimate themes of loneliness and the mad rush of true love. Seemingly, because in its examination of the desperation of two souls starved for affection (given life thanks to strong performances from Adam Sandler and Emily Watson), this charmingly eccentric, dark romantic comedy literally pulls no punches, opting for a naturalistic approach to its exploration of the wonder of finding someone special under the most unlikely of circumstances.

Sandler plays Barry Egan, a socially awkward single man who runs a kitschy bathroom novelties outlet in Los Angeles. As the film opens, Barry has discovered a loophole in the rules of an airline-food purchase promotion that will allow him to accrue a near-unlimited amount of frequent flyer miles if he buys a comparatively miniscule amount of product. Even though Barry has never flown on an airplane, his attention to the error in the fine print proves one of the few bright moments in the life of a man who's constantly harried by his seven sisters, one of whom tries to set him up with a co-worker, Lena (Watson). Before Barry and Lena have a chance to get to know one another, however, Barry calls a phone-sex line run out of Provo, Utah by sleazy entrepreneur Dean Trumbell (Anderson mainstay Philip Seymour Hoffman) who subsequently attempts to extort money from Barry by sending a group of thugs after him.

Barry's initial encounter with the toughs, who force him to withdraw money from his ATM, compels him to fly to Hawaii, where Lena has been sent on a job assignment. In paradise, away from outside pressures and interference, the two finally get to spend quality time together and realize that their feelings for one another transcend mere surface attraction. The eventual return to California proves problematic, however, as Barry's forced to deal with the seemingly meaningless phone call he made before true love entered his life.

Anderson's handling of Barry's dilemma proves to be Love's biggest narrative gamble. The drudgery of Barry's existence, his reasonably successful but not booming business, and the violent temper that has thus far prevented him from leading any semblance of a normal life, are all utterly fascinating. Inserting a subplot involving lowlife shakedown artists drains energy from the central focus on the developing romance. Fortunately, Anderson manages to deliver a resolution to the phone sex scam in a fresh and relatively believable manner.

The heart of the film is the budding relationship between the two leads, and Anderson provides a number of wonderful stylistic touches that underline and reinforce their growing bond: A discarded harmonium that presages Barry's first meeting with Lena; Barry slamming his fist into the wall during one of his fits, revealing the word LOVE bloodily written across his scraped knuckles; the consistency of the couple's complementary wardrobes. Crucially, Sandler manages to channel the comedic rage of his earlier films into a tragically compelling character study, while Watson takes a role with essentially no background shading and manages to impart a detached sense of isolation and longing coupled with a purity that might have been diluted had she been saddled with the usual amount of baggage given a main character.

Technically, composer Jon Brion (an alumnus of Anderson's Hard Eight and Magnolia) fashions an oddly-tuned tonality that perfectly suits the film's nervous edge, while Jeremy Blake's brightly colorful scene transitions -- reminiscent of his work on the quartet of covers for Beck's recent Sea Change album -- helps enhance the mounting emotional tension as the story progresses.

Punch-Drunk Love is a modest, sweetly lyrical film that -- due to the striking eccentricities of its characters -- might not be everyone's cup of tea. But it ably avoids obvious caricatures to offer real insight into the chaotic emotions so symptomatic during the initial stages of deep and abiding love.

 
The Pudding Guy
The inspiration for Punch-Drunk Love came from an article Anderson read about David Phillips, a California civil engineer who exploited the loophole in a frequent flyer promotion and accumulated over a million miles after purchasing roughly 12,000 cups of pudding for $3000.

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