Pop quiz hotshot: How do you follow up a three hour film filled with cancer, grief, outbursts, and frogs? You run as far as you can in the opposite direction.
Now I didn't know who PTA was back in 2002. But I'm sure there were quite alot of fans who must have been shocked to hear he was following up Magnolia with a 90 minute romantic comedy starring Adam Sandler. This is the guy who has since gone onto Don't Mess With the Zohan. The good thing is & I'm not ashamed at all to admit it, I was a fan of his early movies. Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore & even The Wedding Singer. While he has currently milked the Sandler persona to death with some of his recent efforts, he wasn't known for taking on dramatic roles. Then again, neither was Jim Carrey at that time. What's so interesting about seeing comedic actors like these take on these roles is how they are able to maintain their 'funny man' persona while hitting new notes. & unfortunately for Sandler, PDL is a note he is still trying to reach again.
As much of a departure as this film was for Sandler, it was for PT Anderson. Yet is somehow felt like Anderson. The Jon Brion score being a major component. Compared to Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love is very minimal. The ingredients? A good dose of Jacques Tati along with some French New Wave stylings and it's not hard to see why Cannes loved it. That's not to say his Altman influences are not present. The phone sex operator is straight out of Short Cuts & the use of He Needs Me from Altman's Popeye is also an indicator that that director is still one of PTA's primary influences.
Looking at the director's work as a whole, PDL is the one that sticks out the most as the oddball. It has a mysterious aura surrounding it. Not to mention the usual themes one would find in a PTA flick are for the most part, absent. The scenes however show an abrasive edge to them. Take for example the car flipping or the harmonium being dropped off for no rhyme or reason. They are just there.
It is all the more fitting that the film starts off with a shot of Barry Egan in a desk off in a corner. Loneliness and isolation take place of the usual themes found in a PTA film. All of this being expressed in the colors, sounds, music and camera work. Couple this with a staunch sense of insecurity and you pretty much got Barry Egan's world pegged. At least throughout the 1st act of the film. Visual dynamics are key here. From the shots of Barry in his office with the harmonium to him running down a hallway of exit signs. All point to a sense of character entrapment. It's not very often films are able to take you along with a character's discomfort.
The first time I saw this, the thing that caught me off guard the most were the color bars. The grocery store scene itself has the items stacked in such a way that it recalls them. Anderson also employs a type of organization amongst things. Going back to the first shot, the wall is divided up into two colors: blue and white. Lena's red dress complements Barry's blue suit. The colors pop as they would in a Godard picture yet they still carry the scenes along to a harmonious rhythm.
Despite living in a world of loneliness and insecurity, Lena ends up walking into his life. & isn't that what the whole movie about is anyway? Love. The "I wanna bit your cheeks off" type of love. Where PDL ultimately is triumphant is the chemistry and honest performances between Sandler & Watson. They don't have all the right things to say to each other. They get scared. & in Barry's case, fear is coated with rage. Violent elements which stem from the phone sex stint that threaten to cast a shadow over their relationship. Chief among the purveyors is one Philip Seymour Hoffman who should go toe to toe with Don Logan in terms of shouting a single word repeatedly. Though if Kingsley's Logan was bark and bite, then Hoffman's Dean Trumbell is all bark and no bite.
Punch Drunk Love shows the side of Adam Sandler we have not seen before and unfortunately haven't seen since. Sure he's been in a couple of more dramas, but here he nails the role of Barry Egan. The comedies, though nostalgic to some they may be, seemed to be holding him back from reaching notes unheard of before in his career. Barry's world is filled with domineering sisters, insecurity and rage. Order is restored through Lena Leonard. Who in a signature shot of the film runs up to Egan and their silhouettes are shown embracing amongst the business of the passing crowd.
More important than PTA pulling out a great performance out of Sandler is the themes which some people tend to look over. PDL is about Barry's escape from the isolated and boring existance into one of exhilaration. While the oil derricks of There Will Be Blood may have cast a shadow over the harmonium over Punch Drunk Love, this film's vibrant colors and emotional resonance is still able to linger in our minds long after the final color bars fade out.