“Punch-Drunk Love” (2002): People are just crazy in this world, I think (Review)

To honor Philip Seymour Hoffman we’re taking a look back at his career and review some of the films he appeared in.

In Punch-Drunk Love, director Paul Thomas Anderson rather appropriately drops us in without much context. From there we’re left to reach the surface and make sense of the quirky, yet banal world of Barry Egan. Despite the low-key trappings he gets involved in all sorts of odd situations, including credit extortion at the hands of a crooked mattress salesman who runs a phone sex line.

There’s something otherworldly about it all, it makes you doubt if what you’re seeing is true, and then makes you doubt your own doubts in return.

Adam Sandler plays Barry, who works some sort of business out of an industrial garage, where he spends most of his time, dressed in a suit (which he wears for the entire film). He sells novelty items and is somewhat of a freud, or at least not completely honest with his customers. He’s insecure and seems perpetually nervous and on-edge, prone to violent outbursts. He has a torrid relationship with his seven sisters and most people in general but ultimately he’s just out to connect with someone.

In the hands of Anderson, Sandler really sells it. In a way it’s almost tragic to watch because he’s so good, which makes the fact that he pretty much exclusively makes appalling comedies that much harder to swallow. Very likely his best ever role.

Emily Watson is great as a woman who becomes infatuated with Barry. She has an elegance and grace about her and she really makes the romance of the film of the film work.

The late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman, running a phone sex racket, shows up in the final third for a jolt of extra energy. He has an amazing screaming match with Sandler over the phone and then later goes toe-to-toe with him. Hoffman was one of the best at delivering expletive-laden verbal smack-downs and he gets a few opportunities here. It’s just a shame that there isn’t more of him.

The real star though is Paul Thomas Anderson, his directing and scripting is just fantastic. His visual eye is almost immediately apparent, with frequent collaborator Robert Elswit in charge of the cinematography. The film is chock full of striking images, from a small harmonia in the middle of a Los Angeles street to the couple’s silhouette in a Hawaiian hotel. PTA finds amazing beauty in completely plain, ordinary things and situations. He also adds a bit of flair with abstract color shapes serving as almost act breaks.

This technical excellence extends to the impactful sound design. The sound will drop out almost completely, lulling you into a relaxed state before slamming back in, loudly and brashly. It draws you into Barry’s world and his experience of it, perhaps best exemplified by the noise of all the people at his sister’s birthday party talking, before reaching a fever pitch causing him to explode.

Jon Brion’s unconventional score adds to the atmosphere of the film, it’s strangely aggressive at times with unorthodox instrumentalisation.

Punch Drunk Love rather amazingly feels just like its title, it keeps you in a state of fascinating disorientation, but in a good way, if that makes sense. Somehow that encapsulates the film perfectly. An oddly sweet, weird love story.

The Good: Adam Sandler being actually, truly good

The Bad: Too little Philip Seymour Hoffman

The Ugly: Barry’s drab apartment, ugh

Overall: 8.8/10

Written By Sverrir Sigfusson

Tall, dark and handsome. Student of film theory at the University of Iceland. Purveyor of news and reviews. Consumer of fine music, quality films and fantastic video games. Opinionated and brutally honest yet totally nice and a huge fan of colorful pants.

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  • Tom

    Great work Sverrir. And I must say I agree fully, this was a wonderful, wonderful film. It’s a shame that this role is perhaps the only glimmer we’ll have of Adam Sandler actually acting and working for a paycheck (maybe his turn in Funny People is a distant second), but maybe. . .just maybe the stars will align in the future and he’ll find another tremendous director to work with and shake off his downright miserable comedy routines

  • #CinemaniacReviews

    I watched this movie recently. Not sure why the hell everybody loves it, but good review.

  • Ah, yes. It’s great to look back on the time when PT Anderson’s movies had a sense of fun about them. He may have grown as a filmmaker since this point, but I haven’t loved There Will Be Blood or The Master in the same way that I enjoyed Punch-Drunk Love or Magnolia. I totally agree about Sandler who works so well in this part.