Critics generally regard Punch-Drunk Love as Paul Thomas Anderson’s weakest film. Some were even foolish enough to write him off. But at no point, do you begrudge the protagonist of happiness and love, as one might in most rom-coms. This is why it succeeds at possibly being one of the most evocative, romantic films in an otherwise lifeless, bargain-bin genre.
The power of Punch-Drunk Love lies within the flaws of the protagonist, Barry Egan (Adam Sandler), and his perpetually anxious perspective of the world. He desperately needs to connect with another human being but has had a crippling insecurity instilled deep within him by his seven sisters, which manifests as a barrier between him and the rest of the world.
Barry’s trepid nature is exemplified in the first scene, when he witnesses a car crash outside his office, immediately followed by the dumping of a harmonium on the road. Instead of investigating, Barry fearfully retreats into his office. However, his curiosity prevails when he hesitantly goes out to retrieve the harmonium, without even stepping off the pavement.
This is how Barry experiences every new social situation – people come crashing into his personal space. This is the case with Lena (Emily Watson) in the first five minutes of the film. She asks simple questions of Barry but the low morning sun behind her blinds him, suggesting he is unable to look directly at her and connect.
Whereas every woman in Barry’s world judges and berates him, Lena is the only woman to be drawn to his idiosyncrasies and to truly understand who he is. The audience is convinced that she is the only woman for him, and that it would be impossible for him to go and find any other woman. This raises the stakes and the threat of loneliness for Barry, which is missing for most protagonists in rom-coms.
Barry’s first act of rage, twenty minutes into the film, kills any of the audience’s preconceived notions that the boy inevitably gets the girl, leaving an unhappy ending a distinct possibility. The viewer now suddenly shares Barry’s fear of remaining alone forever, which is compounded by the fact that Lena doesn’t appear again until the thirty-fifth minute.
Most rom-coms rely on drama based upon a miscommunication that should be resolved within a matter of seconds. However, Punch-Drunk Love poses Barry with much graver, less frivolous problems, making it conceivable that he may not overcome them and ultimately fail in his desire to connect with Lena.
An eight-minute scene economically weaves together all of the previously disconnected antagonizing forces in Barry’s life. It would be enough of a task for him to competently deal with one problem at a time, but the stakes are raised when all of his problems surface in one place at the same time. Punch-Drunk Love is far from a typical rom-com because it’s refreshing to see the protagonist thrown into seemingly insurmountable circumstances.
Jon Brion’s score encapsulates the chaos of the scene and Barry’s subsequent stress in juggling all of these problems at once. The range of discordant percussion dizzies the audience into Barry’s mind, vividly conveying the idea of an onslaught by distinct antagonizing forces coming from all directions.
The score and the cinematography combine to reflect Barry’s state of mind according to the situation he is thrust into. In moments of burgeoning romance, the music sways with Barry’s happiness in a waltz set against the most unlikely backdrop of a car lot, transformed by lighting and color to result in a shot that resembles an aurora. In contrast, when Barry’s life is in danger, the score and cinematography serve to induce the suspense of a Hitchcock thriller.
There is a pervading sense of mystery and intrigue in Punch-Drunk Love that engages the audience in a way no other rom-com is capable of. Whose car crashed? Why was the harmonium dumped on the road? Why is Barry buying and hoarding hundreds of Healthy Choice Double Chocolate Fudge Puddings? Was Lena in the supermarket? Who is the D&D Mattress Man (Philip Seymour Hoffman) that is blackmailing him?
At the core of the film is Adam Sandler’s best performance. Film critic, Roger Ebert, praised his previously unearthed abilities at the time of Punch-Drunk Love’s release: “He’s got notes, that he can play, that not every actor can reach.” This was partly due to Paul Thomas Anderson, who wrote the perfect variation on the character Sandler was notorious for being typecasted as, but never challenged with.
Barry’s guarded verbal responses provide Sandler with a restriction, which effectively frees him to emote, using body language and facial expressions. Even when Barry turns away from the camera to face the corner of the room, the audience knows exactly how he is feeling. Sandler’s performance is one that the great actors of the silent film era would be proud of.