Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

Adam Sandler delivers a perfect performance (not often I find myself saying that) in one of the more overlooked films of the great P. T. Anderson’s career.

Sandler portrays Barry Egan, a neurotic, socially anxious introvert who struggles with the expectations of his family. Sandler’s irritated persona is grating in many of his films where it results in him yelling and cursing a lot, but it works perfectly for Egan who is filled with anxiety and pent-up frustration from social expectation and his own issues. That nuanced frustration – from his inability to fit into his family, the social expectations placed upon him, his struggles in properly expressing and explaining himself – is played absolutely perfectly by Sandler. Real shame he hasn’t done many films that use him so well since, because he excels in portraying the socially challenged Egan. I think the film shows a touching examination of the transformative power of love – the way love can calm and “fill” someone – and Sandler and Watson absolutely sell it. Egan struggles to connect with anyone, and gets incredibly anxious when other people’s communication with him pressures him, and the way Lena ends up being someone Egan actively wants to connect to is heartwarming.

While there’s some surreal aspects (one of the best scenes of the film is a bizarre car crash out of nowhere that Egan witnesses) and a crime subplot, the film is essentially a love story. Emily Watson portrays Lena Leonard and has excellent chemistry with Sandler, as well as embodying the own individual quirks of her character (she’s peculiar in her own way, just like he is). The film has such a delightful sense of sweetness it’s hard to believe I’d say it’s hard to believe it’s from the same director as There Will Be Blood and The Master, but the excellent film-making is a big reminder.

Visually, the film plays a lot with colour, mainly in the visual interludes, red and blue lens flares (Anderson loves his anamorphic lenses) and symbolism. Egan looks ridiculous in his blue and white suit, but his loneliness and individuality goes beyond that, as the rest of the cast uses all sorts of other colours (plenty of red and orange) that put Egan in clear contrast with them. Anderson has the film heavily overexposed so as to make Egan’s blue and white really stand out against the rest of the world. Lena starts off wearing mostly red but moves to blue than white as the movie progresses, perhaps symbolically representing her move (or Egan’s growing acceptance) of her from something that stresses out Egan and makes him nervous (to clarify, because he feels the weight of social expectation – they both clearly like each other from the get-go) to the person he absolutely wants to constantly be around and spend his life with.

The movie is thematically concerned with social anxiety and dysfunction, and the music is one of the most interesting ways Anderson goes about conveying this. Soothing strings and woodwind fill the background of the scene where Egan shares his enthusiasm about the harmonium, but discordant percussion creeps in when Egan’s awkward encounters at his workplace begin. A lot of the music in the film is unpleasant, but the stress your mind feels when hearing it is Anderson’s attempt to put you in Egan’s stressed mindset.

The film is gorgeous, and its unique visual elements reinforce the themes of the film rather than just act as standalone gimmicks. The cast is pitch perfect in their roles. The writing is sweet, and nuanced on the issue of social anxiety (and possibly a social disorder; it’s never clarified if Egan has a condition). I really have no complaints, it’s an absolutely fantastic film.

I give it four cups of pudding, and a harmonium.

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